Winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine tend to reduce their research output after claiming the prestigious honor, according to a new study – suggesting that bagging the prize isn't so desirable for those who want to stay productive and relevant.

Analyzing data on Nobel Prize winners from 1950 to 2009, researchers from Stanford University in California and the University of Waterloo in Canada looked at three measures: the number of published papers, the novelty of these papers (how new the ideas in them were), and the number of citations in other articles.

Researchers matched this data against people of similar age who had won the Lasker Award, another well-respected medical science prize. They performed the comparison to minimize the risk of individuals' ages affecting the results – Nobel Prizes are more often given out late in people's careers when they might be expected to work less anyway.

In all three measures, Nobel Prize winners scored higher than Lasker Award winners before getting the prize – and then the trend flips afterward. Post-Nobel, scientists dropped to the same level or below as those who had won the Lasker Award.

"These declines may reflect diversionary effects of the Prize, changed incentives, or intrinsically different career arcs for medical researchers who win the Nobel Prize," write the researchers in their paper.

The Lasker Award winners also saw a decline in productivity after being officially recognized, but not as much as those who got a Nobel. On average, in the 10 years after winning, Lasker winners published one more study a year than Nobel winners.

While the data analysis isn't detailed enough to prove cause and effect, it shows an interesting pattern. Although the implication isn't that these Nobel Prize winners are putting their feet up and taking it easy, there might be a debate to be had about how the status of winners changes and the impact that has on research.

"The Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology provides a platform to serve as ambassadors for science," write the researchers. "Laureates often step onto this platform."

The Nobel Prize, founded by Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901, undoubtedly raises the profile of science and encourages young scientists. The question raised here is whether it might also cause a decline in innovative, high-quality research.

That's a very difficult call to make, not least because the benefits and drawbacks are hard to quantify properly. One idea put forward by the team behind this new study is recognizing scientists earlier in their careers through the Nobel or other awards.

"Future work should more explicitly study the productivity effects of winning an
early career research award," write the researchers.

A working paper on the research has been published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, though it hasn't been peer-reviewed.