Friday, March 30, 2012

When prince charming kissed Mendel: delayed recognition in science.

Monk Gregor Mendel hadn't lived to see his peas become famous; his paper has been asleep, waiting for prince charming to cite it awake. Of course, not all "delay recognition" papers sleep as long as Mendel's, but "sleeping beauty" or "Mendel's syndrome" papers do exist in science. A "sleeping beauty" paper can go uncited for years, until suddenly it's awakened.

Costas, van Leeuwen and van Raan (2010) classify published scientific papers according to three general types:

Normal-type: these have the normal distribution of published papers, usually reaching the peak of their citation 3-4 years after publication and then decay.

Flash in the pans-type: these get cited very often when they first come out, but are forgotten in the long run, kind of like a teenager pop star.

Delayed-type: those who start drawing interest later than the normal-type papers. Costas et al. prefer not to call them all "sleeping beauties" because real sleeping beauties (never cited and then suddenly rise to fame) are very rare.

Source: Costas, van Leeuwen and van Raan (2010)

Looking at all the documents from Web of Science between the years 1980 and 2008 (over 30 million), Costas et al. found that the "flash in the pans" type of papers tend more to be editorial, notes, reviews and so forth, rather than research articles. Delayed documents tended to be more prominent in the "articles" category. When they checked Nature and Science, two 'letter' journals, Costas et al. found that they cover 10.9% and 10.5% of "flash in the pans" documents respectively, which is higher than average (9.8%) in the database.

The castle of the sleeping beauty is the availability of information. The information has to be accessible, and it has to be visible. The Web, of course, has improved the accessibility of papers a great deal, especially when said papers are open-sourced. When a paper is digitalized or becomes open-accessed, its visibility and availability increase. But being available is not enough: researchers must have use for the information despite the passage of time.

The prince kisses the sleeping beauty awake

Source: Wang, Ma, Chen & Rao, 2012

In 1995, Polchinski's paper on supergravity in string theory “Dirichlet branes and Ramond-Ramond charges” came out and cited an early work by Romans (1986) about the same subject. Romans' paper has not been cited from 1986 to 1995(!), but according to Google Scholar (which admittedly could be inflated) count, it has been cited 424 times since then. Why? One reason is that Romans' paper was simply ahead of its time, published in a "sleeping beauty" field. In the nine years until Polchinski's paper, interest in supergravity has considerably increased. Another reason is that Polchinski is a high-classed prince, with great academic authority. An unknown scholar probably wouldn't have been as successful in waking up Romans' paper.

Source: Wang, Ma, Chen & Rao, 2012

An extension of the "Mendel Syndrome" is "Mendelism", when researchers "develop lines of research and have a profile of publications (‘oeuvres’) 'ahead of their time'’’ (recent Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman comes to mind). Citation speaking, the Mendel syndrome is defined by Costas et al. as "the undervaluation through citation analysis of units (individuals, teams, etc.) due to significant patterns of delayed reception of citations in their scientific publications."

Wang et al. returns to a question by Eugene Garfield, the father of citation indexing: "Would Mendel’s work have been ignored if the Science Citation Index was available 100 years ago?" We can only wonder.

Costas, van Leeuwen, & van Raan (2011). The ‘‘Mendel syndrome’’ in science: durability
of scientific literature and its effects on bibliometric
analysis of individual scientists Scientometrics, 177-205

van Raan, A. (2004). Sleeping Beauties in science Scientometrics, 59 (3), 467-472 DOI: 10.1023/B:SCIE.0000018543.82441.f1

Rodrigo Costas, Thed N. van Leeuwen, & Anthony F. J. van Raan (2009). Is scientific literature subject to a sell-by-date? A general
methodology to analyze the durability of scientific documents Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology arXiv: 0907.1455v1

Wang, Chen, & Rao (2012). Why and how can "sleeping beauties" be awakened? The Electronic Library, 30 (1), 5-18 :


  1. Interesting. I wonder if, with the internet, there will be fewer sleeping beauties in future. Maybe if Roman's paper had been published today, more people would have heard about it and realized its implications? Although on the other hand, maybe everyone read it in 1986 and just ignored it anyway... I don't know, experts in the field might.

  2. I can speculate that it would have gotten a citation or two in the years after the publication, because of the greater availability the internet provides. However, the entire field was "sleeping" at that time, so who knows? I agree it's an interesting question, and if any expert in the field is reading this...