Researchers are using big data to determine the potential impact of demographic diversity on new knowledge in the field of history.

Diverse teams are often associated with rapid discovery, yet few studies have examined whether and to what extent diversity in demographics, such as an individual’s gender and race, leads to new ideas and knowledge. “These questions are part of a longstanding discussion in the research community concerning who creates knowledge and the knowledge produced,” says Londa Schiebinger, professor of history of science at Stanford University.

Schiebinger and her colleagues’ latest work in this arena, published in PLOS ONE, used big data and computer modeling to map how women and men have contributed to developments and breakthroughs in the field of history over time between the years 1950-2015.

Here, two of the paper’s nine coauthors, senior author Schiebinger, who is also director of Stanford’s Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment Project, and Mathias W. Nielsen, formerly a Gendered Innovations postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, now an associate professor of the sociology of science at the University of Copenhagen, discuss the study and how increased gender diversity in research affects not only the scientists doing the work but also what research is taking place:

What prompted this study and what’s the broader context of this research?

Schiebinger: Too often diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) means demographic diversity—or the diversity of bodies in the room. What we are interested in is intellectual diversity—or the production of new knowledge. Does demographic diversity result in new knowledge? Do newcomers launch new areas of research? What new knowledge is produced? This is what motivated this study.

Nielsen: A few years ago, Londa, Carter Walter Bloch of Aarhus University in Denmark, and I conducted a review of the literature on gender diversity in science that identified three types of diversity: diversity in teams, diversity in methods, and diversity in research questions. At that point, gender diversity was commonly used to refer to the composition of teams. That motivated us to study changes in researcher demographics and research agendas within the field of history over time.

How is this research different from other studies of diversity and discovery?

Nielsen: A few prior studies have examined associations between researcher demographics (such as gender and nationality) and research topics (primarily in the social sciences and medical sciences) at a single point in time. Our study traces developments in gender diversity and research questions over time enabling us to tease out how the field of history changed as women entered the discipline.

Read the full article about demographic diversity Holly Alyssa MacCormick at Futurity.