The sleeping beauties of science

The success of a researcher depends a lot on how influential his scientific papers are. This influence is usually determined by how many people cite a paper in their own papers within a few years of its publication. A professor of computing and informatics and his team went through millions of scientific papers to see just how long it takes after publication for a paper to reach a peak number of citations, and in the process, they uncovered what they call “sleeping beauties.” These are papers that fail to get much notice when they’re first published, only to be revived after decades, or even a century, of languishing. Included among these sleeping beauties is a paper Einstein co-authored with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen concerning the eerie phenomenon of quantum entanglement. That paper went largely unnoticed for about 60 years until it was revived in 1994.

Nobody is quite certain why these particular papers get revived, but one interesting factor is that for many of them, the later citations come from other disciplines.

2 thoughts on “The sleeping beauties of science

  1. “Nobody is quite certain why these particular papers get revived, but one interesting factor is that for many of them, the later citations come from other disciplines.”

    My theory is that the papers are outside the comfortable boundaries of the field at the time they were published. Another discipline would have a better chance to see how to use their discoveries in the related field.

    That’s to say, the idea of sticking one branch of scientific inquiry into a discipline is convenient, but it isn’t an unalloyed good, and this sort of thing highlights some of the deficiencies.

  2. It’s possible. We do tend to pigeon-hole things; interdisciplinary work might be more fruitful in some cases.

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