Like Sleeping Beauty, some research lies dormant for decades, study finds

Like Sleeping Beauty, some research lies dormant for decades, IU study finds
This list shows the top 20 disciplines producing sleeping beauties in science. Credit: Indiana University

Why do some discoveries fade into obscurity while others blaze a new trail the moment they are published? More mysteriously, why do some research papers remain dormant for years and then suddenly explode with great impact upon the scientific community?

The last group, dubbed "sleeping beauties," is the subject of a new study from the Indiana University Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing's Center for Complex Networks and Systems. It was released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This study provides empirical evidence that a paper can truly be 'ahead of its time,'" said Alessandro Flammini, an associate professor of informatics and corresponding author on the study. "A 'premature' topic may fail to attract attention even when it is introduced by authors who have already established a strong scientific reputation."

A prime example is a seminal paper by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen that laid out the "EPR Paradox," a major puzzle in quantum entanglement theory in which particles with past interaction remain linked in their behavior no matter their distance, including across a galaxy. The IU study found that the paper, published in 1935, didn't receive widespread citation until 1994.

The drowsiest sleeping beauty in the study came from the influential statistician Karl Pearson. His paper that was published in 1901 in the journal Philosophical Magazine did not "awaken" until 2002.

Among the top 15 sleeping beauties, four were published over 100 years ago.

"The potential application of some studies are simply unforeseen at the time," Flammini said. "The second-ranked sleeping beauty in our study, published in 1958, concerns the preparation of graphic oxide, which much later became a compound used to produce graphene, a material hundreds of time more resistant than steel and therefore of great interest to industry."

The disciplines with the highest rate of delayed recognition were physics, chemistry, multidisciplinary science, mathematics, and general and internal medicine, with several papers experiencing hibernation periods upwards of 70 years.

The top journals for the publication of sleeping beauties were PNAS, Nature and Science.

To conduct the study, Flammini and collaborators drew upon a massive dataset of tens of millions of publications across multiple disciplines over more than a century. The trove of data came from the archives of the American Physical Society, a major publication outlet in physics, and the Web of Science, which includes papers in both the sciences and social sciences.

The scientists drew upon over 380,000 publications from the American Physical Society and 22.4 million from Web of Science.

To calculate a paper's "beauty coefficient," the IU scientists compared a paper's citation history against a line of reference based upon publication year, the maximum number of citations received in a year (within a multi-year observation period) and the year when maximum citation was achieved. They also calculated the "awakening time," the year in which an abrupt change occurred compared to past citations.

Using a massive dataset and open parameters, Flammini found delayed recognition is not as rare a phenomenon as suggested in previous work on the topic, including a 2004 study from the Dutch statistician Anthony F.J. van Raan, who coined the term "sleeping beauties."

The IU study also revealed that statistics, a discipline that had not been previously seen as rich in sleeping beauties, was among the top five fields to experience delayed citations, possibly due to the recent explosion in the availability of extremely large datasets. In addition to the study by Pearson, Flammini's top 15 list included a paper from Edin Bidell Wilson, dormant for 70 years, that introduced an important formula for analyzing small datasets or calculating extreme probability.

Other disciplines named for the first time among those experiencing delayed recognition were probability, surgery and the social sciences.

Broadly, Flammini said the greatest proportion of delayed recognition occurred in papers whose citations made the jump to a new discipline, with different scholars finding new resonances in their own fields.

But sleeping beauties are also fickle, and defy easy definition. The study found no clear demarcation value separating them from "normal" papers, or a method to predict the timing or nature of renewed interest in their topics.

"We found the delayed recognition occurs on a wide and continuous range, in sharp contrast with previous results claiming that long dormant studies are extraordinary cases," Flammini said. "But more work is needed to uncover the 'trigger mechanisms' for awakening these sleeping beauties."

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May 25, 2015
Putting research online in open searchable formats would prevent obscurity from being an issue.

May 25, 2015
Every physics grad student for nearly 20 years had to read "Physical Review, vol. 73, Issue 7", the seminal Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper, yet no one seems to have thought about it long enough to read the follow-up Alpher and Herman paper (vol. 74), "on the Relative Abundance of the Elements", which drew the conclusion that there should be a microwave background observed of about 2-5 kelvins. Alpha male stubborness led to fights between Gamow et al., students chose sides based on ego identity, not facts- as the idiot trolls in this group demonstrate is so very popular a reaction- and most students were either too lazy or overtasked to sit down, read the next issue, and think it through. Gamow took Alpher on a drive up California 101 to show off his fancy new white Caddy and was dead set the temperature was zero, Alpher insisted it was 5 kelvin, and it never occured to them that interstellar clouds had already been measured at 3 kelvins.

May 25, 2015
Gamow admitted the stupidity. "I'm not sure if it was the too great luxury or my being dead set to prove Alpher wrong, but I was not particularly discovery prone when it came to the CMBR".

Until those social factors kicked in again and some newly minted Ph.D's were assigned the glorious task of cleaning the pigeon droppings out of the horn antennna in Holmdel, NJ for AT&T as they were the least important in the social hierarchy. That didn't clear up the noise, and then we have the great discovery.

That's no "Sleeping Beauty". That is UGLY human nature and how our science is still very primitive, too dominated by primate social factors and our way of educating people basically sucks.

May 25, 2015
I think the problem also relates to the ability to promote the paper, and in the general reluctance to accept it. The EPR paper fell into that category because the Copenhagen interpretation appeared to be on the line. However, citation is not necessarily valid, because there was a lot of work on entanglement between EPR and 1994. It was just that much was not conclusive

May 26, 2015
@AGreatWhopper Don't forget our ugly nature still helps us to make such discoveries. A little less hatred on us would be nice.
I must admit those people egos were too high.

May 26, 2015
Putting research online in open searchable formats would prevent obscurity from being an issue.

Controlling opinion, involves owning the methods by which people gain information, this time.. 90% of all US major media are owned by 6 corporations. They all swing and dance to the same tune. Six people control it, in reality. Look it up.

Controlling advances in science, controlling human access to invention and similar.

Corporations and companies buy up the viewing rights. they create the scenario by which this is enacted.

On the surface it all looks innocent, with regard to nefarious aspects as have been shown to be real, in the idea of media control and access...

A closer look will reveal another reality.

May 26, 2015
PNAS, Nature and Science could do help the discovery of sleeping beauties by having an annual competition of brief descriptions and arguments for the best candidate for big-but-overlooked paper of the year and have readers vote by citing it in the next year in their work. The winner is the one that gets the biggest jump in citations from reputable publications.

May 26, 2015
The sheer volume of published papers guarantees "sleeping beauties".

Fifty million or so papers ever published and more than a million papers published a year since at least 2006.



May 30, 2015
So, in other words, what "science" presents as "the very last word" on any subject is not necessarily so. Indeed, it can be that entire "disciplines" or "theories" can be based on a fraud, backed up by non existent "research" that scammers claim back up the original lies, if the papers disputing the original falser "theory" are withheld. It never has been proved that "fossils" are anything more than resin casts in the possession of crooks who order you to believe they're real, and the seasonal variation in the results of the Michelson-Morley Experiment, which counter "relativity" have never been fully examined. Meanwhile, face it, presentations of claims rarely include disclaimers and "science" devotees define "science" as "absolutely true", when they can get away with it, and "willing to admit its mistakes", when its lies are exposed as lies.

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