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Study of the Impact of Past Scientific Research on Current Research

Altschuler, Eric (2020) Study of the Impact of Past Scientific Research on Current Research. [Preprint]


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November 4, 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of Nature’s first issue. An Editorial published in advance of the anniversary (September 26, 2019; 573: 464) noted that there were only a handful of years between the newest and oldest citations on the reference list of many papers. The Editorial begs a fascinating question: what is the relevance of historical (older) papers for current science? To examine this question, I read and studied all the primary research papers published in Nature in its 151st year looking for citations at least approximately fifty years old that were relevant and generative for current research. I found that 117 out of 929 research papers (12.6%)—a not insignificant number—published in the year included such citations of older works, but that for only 22 papers (2.4% of 2019-2020 papers) was the older cited work essential or crucial for the current work. (I was also able to estimate the rate of failure by referees or editors to catch uncited important older reference to be only ~0.1-0.3%.) Citations go back to Aristotle’s Metrologica, but there is a precipitous drop off with time with 44% of the older cited papers having been published between 1961 and 1970, 21% published 1951-1960 and 20% published 1921-1950. Most interestingly, 53% of the 2019-2020 papers citing older works were papers in the physical sciences, including 16.5/22 (75%) of papers for which the older cited work was essential or crucial for the current research significantly in excess (p<0.01) of the 39% of the total papers from the physical sciences in the year. This difference seems to be due to modern technologies allowing new testing and novel deployment of previously laid down fundamental principles in the physical sciences. These findings may have practical implications for the utilization of the scientific past in future research.

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Item Type: Preprint
Altschuler, Ericaltschue@nychhc.org0000-0002-3575-6954
Keywords: History of science; physical sciences; life sciences
Subjects: General Issues > History of Science Case Studies
Depositing User: Dr. Eric Altschuler
Date Deposited: 14 Oct 2020 13:42
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2020 13:42
Item ID: 18225
Subjects: General Issues > History of Science Case Studies
Date: 13 October 2020

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