On NPR today, “Morning Edition” ran a fascinating story on the role of chance in success and failure. Is the Mona Lisa much beloved because it truly is exceptional or because of factors other than artistic quality? According to nicely-designed research by Matthew Sagalnick and colleagues, chance plays a much bigger role than most people would suspect. Their results indicate that “after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn't is essentially a matter of chance.”
This should not be surprising. Movie producers, television executives, and book publishers are notoriously ineffective at sorting the likely to succeed from the unlikely to succeed. Thus, multiple publishers rejected the first Harry Potter book, and the Beatles “struggled to get a record deal.” People often favor a particular piece of art, music, or literature simply because other people favor it.
There is no reason to think that studies would come to a different conclusion for academic research. One wonders whether law review editors, book publishers, tenure committees, and other evaluators will give these findings the weight they deserve, especially since current practices tend to reinforce rather than counterbalance elements of chance.