Disruptive research may be slowing down

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Monday, January 9, 2023 - 10:37am
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As papers and patents pile up faster than ever, some observers worry the rate of truly groundbreaking work is slowing.

A new study in the journal Nature offers the strongest evidence yet that research is consolidating findings, not disrupting them.

The analysis involved 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents across six decades.

“Disruptive papers are ones that really create a bend in the road, as I like to call it, and almost start a new conversation, or a new tact in the new conversation, and encourage future researchers to almost ignore prior work and focus on the disruptive paper,” said co-author Erin Leahy, director of UA’s School of Sociology.

To gauge whether a paper sent a field’s research rushing down new channels, the authors looked at how later papers referenced the new findings: If they caused a true shift in thinking — like the double-helix model of DNA — then future papers ought to cite the new paper, not the outmoded research that paper had cited, such as Linus Pauling’s proposed triple helix.

“A paper is disruptive if the subsequent papers that cite it ignore the work that was in its bibliography,” said Leahy. “Using those kind of network connections between papers, we are able to gauge whether a given paper disrupts a stream of literature – in other words, kind of a sends it in a new direction or not.”

The paper reported a disruptiveness drop-off ranging from 91.9% in the social sciences to 100% for the physical sciences from 1945 to 2010.

Patents saw a downturn between 1980 and 2010 ranging from 78.7% for computers and communications to 91.5% for drugs and medicine.

The authors suspect the slowdown may stem in part from current research culture, which drives a publish-or-perish mentality and leaves little time or economic support for broader exploration.

Science and technology have historically experienced periods of slowing innovation. That said, this one appears to show signs of abating.

“The rate of decline has already started to taper off,” said Leahy. “And we've seen that a little bit with papers too. So it is hard to speculate, but I think that the steepest decline has already occurred.”