The Matthew effect has become a standard concept in science studies and beyond to describe processes of cumulative advantage. Despite its wide success, a rigorous quantitative analysis for Merton’s original case for Matthew effects—the Nobel Prize—is still missing. This paper aims to fill this gap by exploring the causal effect of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (hereafter the Nobel Prize in Economics). Furthermore, we test another of Merton’s ideas: successful papers can draw attention to cited references, leading to a serial diffusion of ideas. Based on the complete Web of Science 1900–2011, we estimate the causal effects of Nobel Prizes compared to a synthetic control group which we constructed by combining different matching techniques. We find clear evidence for a Matthew effect upon citation impacts, especially for papers published within five years before the award. Further, scholars from the focal field of the award are particularly receptive to the award signal. In contrast to that, we find no evidence that the Nobel Prize causes a serial diffusion of ideas. Papers cited by future Nobel laureates do not gain in citation impact after the award.

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