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The Sleeping Beauties of Science

Late-blooming research turns out to be common, according to ... new research.
(Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)

(Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)

Karl Pearson is one of the towering figures in the science of statistics. Arguably, he invented the field. It might come as a surprise, then, to hear that it took more than a century for one of his papers, "On Lines and Planes of Closest Fit to Systems of Points in Space," to get any attention at all. First published in 1901, Pearson's paper didn't gain acclaim until 2002—66 years after Pearson's death. Cool (albeit somewhat sad) story, right?

Sure, but it's not a particularly unusual one, according to new research.

"Sleeping beauties," as Indiana University researchers Qing Ke, Emilio Ferrara, Filippo Radicchi, and Alessandro Flammini dubbed papers like Pearson's, aren't as unusual as many scientists might expect. Instead, they're just one end of a continuum of citation histories. Beyond cocktail party chat, however, may lay an intriguing insight: It seems many sleeping beauties emerge when one scientific discipline digs up one overlooked paper in another.

Papers with the highest beauty coefficients in the top third were more likely to have been cited outside their original fields.

The researchers figured this out by first developing what they called a beauty coefficient. A paper with a boring citation history—a fixed number of citations every year, year after year—has a beauty coefficient of zero. A typical sleeping beauty, on the other hand, gets a sudden burst of attention after "sleeping" for decades and has a much higher coefficient. Pearon's paper, for example, is around 3,500 on the beauty scale.

But how common are sleeping beauties, and what kinds of papers are they? To find out, the researchers computed beauty coefficients for 384,649 papers published in American Physical Society journals, along with 22,379,244 papers in the Web of Science, one of the most comprehensive indices of published research available.

Remarkably, sleeping beauties weren't all that rare; a great many papers fell somewhere between Pearsonesque sleeping beauty and the normal baseline publication. That was true across disciplines, too. While physics and chemistry dominated the list of top sleeping beauties in the Web of Science database, statistics and social sciences were represented as well. "[P]apers whose citation histories are characterized by long dormant periods followed by fast growths are not exceptional outliers, but simply the extreme cases in very heterogeneous but otherwise continuous distributions," the researchers write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Exactly what turns a paper into a sleeping beauty is less clear, though the researchers have some ideas. Papers with the highest beauty coefficients were more likely to have been cited outside their original fields, the team found. For example, a 1955 paper by Eugene Garfield on, of all things, citation indices re-emerged years later as the inspiration for journal impact factors and an early Web page rating system. Seeing the beauty in a paper, it seems, might just take a fresh perspective and a new set of eyes.

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