Robert Gray Dodge Chair Installation Ceremony: Laszlo Barabasi

Brilliant and motivated, but a good hire?

by Angela Herring

The evi­dence is clear that Albert-László Barabási, a world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist and Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has enjoyed a suc­cessful career. As the founding pro­fessor of Northeastern’s net­work sci­ence pro­gram, Barabási is a “bril­liant and moti­vated” scholar, in the words of his grad­uate advisor, Gene Stanley, him­self a dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of physics at Boston University.

Barabási has pub­lished four books and 142 papers, which have col­lec­tively received more than 100-thou­sand cita­tions. He’s even got a Kevin Bacon number of one, thanks to his appear­ance along­side the Hol­ly­wood actor in a movie called “Con­nected,” according to Larry Finkel­stein, dean of the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. As Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, put it, “you can’t hide from the obvious impact of his work.”

But on Monday at a cer­e­mony installing him as the inau­gural Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor of Net­work Sci­ence, Barabási asked whether all these acco­lades actu­ally made him a good hire back in 2009.

In his inau­gural lec­ture that focused on the “sci­ence of suc­cess,” Barabási noted the mea­sures are con­sis­tently used to deter­mine a researcher’s suc­cess in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity: a journal’s impact factor and a paper or researcher’s total cita­tion count. “We love to hate these num­bers,” explained Barabási, because they don’t actu­ally do a very good job of pre­dicting the future impact of a paper or suc­cess of a career.

In a new line of research for his lab, Barabási’s team is devel­oping a more math­e­mat­i­cally robust way of mea­suring suc­cess. They’ve exam­ined it in the con­text of physics research papers and are begin­ning to expand it into other broad-​​ranging areas, including the suc­cess of a Twitter feed.

Thank­fully to those in atten­dance Monday who hired him five years ago, Barabási can use these methods to pre­dict con­tinued suc­cess for his own career.

While a researcher’s single block­buster suc­cess often comes in his or her first 10 years on the job, there is actu­ally no pre­dic­tive value in that time­line for future suc­cess. Based on pro­duc­tivity, he said, “we can’t see suc­cess coming nor do we really learn from it.”

Instead, things like an individual’s “excel­lence parameter”— a mea­sure of how he com­pares to his peers in the way he addresses the world’s challenges — is much more impor­tant than their total cita­tions, the impact of the journals they pub­lish in, or even their overall pro­duc­tivity. We can find an accu­rate mea­sure of suc­cess, Barabási said, “you just have to look at the right variables.”

In closing remarks, Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, noted that Robert Gray Dodge, for whom Barabási’s new pro­fes­sor­ship is named, was essen­tially the university’s first pro­fessor. “I think it’s fit­ting that he started some­thing brand new and achieved great suc­cess,” said Director, noting that is pre­cisely what Barabási has done since joining the North­eastern fac­ulty and spear­heading the nation’s first pro­gram in net­work science.

“One thing I learned through net­work sci­ence,” Barabási said, “is that a net­work is use­less as a set of nodes. It’s all about the links.” North­eastern, he said, has allowed him to pursue those links in order to main­tain the high level of work in which his lab is engaged.

Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun noted that before com­mencing his tenure at North­eastern, Barabási demanded only one thing: “an envi­ron­ment con­ducive to building the best pro­gram in the country.” When Aoun asked how he pro­posed to do that, Barabási said it was simple — just bring in the best people at all levels. “This is what has hap­pened,” Aoun said.

While suc­cess may now be accu­rately mea­sured through com­pli­cated math­e­matics thanks to Barabási’s work, what mat­ters most may still be the col­lab­o­ra­tions and links that allow a researcher to sus­tain such work.

Originally published in [email protected] on February 25, 2014

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