Scientific discovery is shaped by scientists’ choices and thus by their career patterns. The increasing knowledge required to work at the frontier of science makes it harder for an individual to embark on unexplored paths. Yet collaborations can reduce learning costs—albeit at the expense of increased coordination costs. In this article, we use data on the publication histories of a very large sample of physicists to measure the effects of knowledge and social relatedness on their diversification strategies. Using bipartite networks, we compute a measure of topic similarity and a measure of social proximity. We find that scientists’ strategies are not random, and that they are significantly affected by both. Knowledge relatedness across topics explains ≈ 10 % of logistic regression deviances and social relatedness as much as ≈ 30 % , suggesting that science is an eminently social enterprise: when scientists move out of their core specialization, they do so through collaborations. Interestingly, we also find a significant negative interaction between knowledge and social relatedness, suggesting that the farther scientists move from their specialization, the more they rely on collaborations. Our results provide a starting point for broader quantitative analyses of scientific diversification strategies, which could also be extended to the domain of technological innovation—offering insights from a comparative and policy perspective.
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