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Reaction: scientific innovation is less and less disruptive

A study has analysed the citation patterns of 45 million scientific articles and nearly 4 million patents over the last 60 years. Its conclusion is that scientific and technological innovation is proportionally less and less disruptive, although this characteristic remains constant in absolute terms. The results are published in the journal Nature.

04/01/2023 - 17:00 CET

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Luis Sanz Menéndez

Research Professor at CSIC at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP)

Science Media Centre Spain

Park, Leahey and Funk's (2023) genuinely original study measures the evolution of disruption, radical change in the knowledge base and scientific innovation, by analysing the citation patterns received by publications and patents. 

The basic idea is that disruptive scientific papers can be identified by a radical change in the likelihood that the papers that cite them also cite the earlier papers that those papers cited. It is a way of measuring change; it quantifies a break in the dominant paradigm of knowledge; classically put - in the words of Thomas Kuhn - it monitors the emergence of scientific revolutions or radical innovations. 

Although the emphasis is on disruption, in reality the work is analysing the balance between the two forms of doing science (consolidation or accumulation and disruption or radical innovation) that are necessary for the advancement of knowledge. 

The study shows the emergence of a secular trend, since the mid-20th century, towards a slowdown in this indicator of radical change. They conclude that in recent years there has been an increase in the predominance of research based on consolidation and a reduction (compared to the past) in disruptive knowledge. 

The novelty of the paper lies in the application of the new indicator to measure disruption over time and its application to a broad time period (60 years); also in the use of millions of scientific articles and patents, as well as citations received (hundreds of millions) in later time periods. 

It is important to note that the decline in aggregate disruptive values for science as a whole does not preclude the identification of highly disruptive individual papers, simply that their weight in the population is lower. 

The explanations for these results that can be suggested relate to the increase in specialisation (decrease in interdisciplinarity) and the reduction in the diversity of knowledge that scientists and teams use (in a context of exponential growth of that knowledge); these processes can also be connected to the instability in funding sources and in what has been called "precarisation of research careers" (OECD-GSF (2021)) observed in the past decades. 

It is also necessary to consider, as in any observational study, the possible effects associated with the constructed data, such as regression to the mean, maturation, seasonality, the existence of secular trends, etc. 

However, the implications of the study for countries' science policies are very important. It is not so much a matter of contributing to these accumulation or consolidation tasks, but of ensuring that disruptive scientific activities (those that are later recognised with Nobel prizes or that are among the most cited contributions in the top 0.001% of the citation distribution in each field) can be contributed to. 

Although the study focuses on individual scientists (through articles or patents), for a country to contribute to such disruptive science requires not only individually talented scientists but, above all, the existence of organisational contexts in which to embed the necessary attributes that explain the greater propensity for such disruptive work and which are currently concentrated in a small set of global institutions. These attributes, which are still scarce among Spanish institutions, are high degrees of organisational flexibility, interdisciplinarity, internal diversity, stable funding with the capacity to develop medium-term projects and good working conditions for attracting talent, among others.

The author has declared they have no conflicts of interest
Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time
  • Research article
  • Peer reviewed
Study types:
  • Research article
  • Peer reviewed
Topics innovation
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