Review

Science of science

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Science  02 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6379, eaao0185
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0185

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The whys and wherefores of SciSci

The science of science (SciSci) is based on a transdisciplinary approach that uses large data sets to study the mechanisms underlying the doing of science—from the choice of a research problem to career trajectories and progress within a field. In a Review, Fortunato et al. explain that the underlying rationale is that with a deeper understanding of the precursors of impactful science, it will be possible to develop systems and policies that improve each scientist's ability to succeed and enhance the prospects of science as a whole.

Science, this issue p. eaao0185

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

The increasing availability of digital data on scholarly inputs and outputs—from research funding, productivity, and collaboration to paper citations and scientist mobility—offers unprecedented opportunities to explore the structure and evolution of science. The science of science (SciSci) offers a quantitative understanding of the interactions among scientific agents across diverse geographic and temporal scales: It provides insights into the conditions underlying creativity and the genesis of scientific discovery, with the ultimate goal of developing tools and policies that have the potential to accelerate science. In the past decade, SciSci has benefited from an influx of natural, computational, and social scientists who together have developed big data–based capabilities for empirical analysis and generative modeling that capture the unfolding of science, its institutions, and its workforce. The value proposition of SciSci is that with a deeper understanding of the factors that drive successful science, we can more effectively address environmental, societal, and technological problems.

ADVANCES

Science can be described as a complex, self-organizing, and evolving network of scholars, projects, papers, and ideas. This representation has unveiled patterns characterizing the emergence of new scientific fields through the study of collaboration networks and the path of impactful discoveries through the study of citation networks. Microscopic models have traced the dynamics of citation accumulation, allowing us to predict the future impact of individual papers. SciSci has revealed choices and trade-offs that scientists face as they advance both their own careers and the scientific horizon. For example, measurements indicate that scholars are risk-averse, preferring to study topics related to their current expertise, which constrains the potential of future discoveries. Those willing to break this pattern engage in riskier careers but become more likely to make major breakthroughs. Overall, the highest-impact science is grounded in conventional combinations of prior work but features unusual combinations. Last, as the locus of research is shifting into teams, SciSci is increasingly focused on the impact of team research, finding that small teams tend to disrupt science and technology with new ideas drawing on older and less prevalent ones. In contrast, large teams tend to develop recent, popular ideas, obtaining high, but often short-lived, impact.

OUTLOOK

SciSci offers a deep quantitative understanding of the relational structure between scientists, institutions, and ideas because it facilitates the identification of fundamental mechanisms responsible for scientific discovery. These interdisciplinary data-driven efforts complement contributions from related fields such as scientometrics and the economics and sociology of science. Although SciSci seeks long-standing universal laws and mechanisms that apply across various fields of science, a fundamental challenge going forward is accounting for undeniable differences in culture, habits, and preferences between different fields and countries. This variation makes some cross-domain insights difficult to appreciate and associated science policies difficult to implement. The differences among the questions, data, and skills specific to each discipline suggest that further insights can be gained from domain-specific SciSci studies, which model and identify opportunities adapted to the needs of individual research fields.

The complexity of science.

Science can be seen as an expanding and evolving network of ideas, scholars, and papers. SciSci searches for universal and domain-specific laws underlying the structure and dynamics of science.

ILLUSTRATION: NICOLE SAMAY

Abstract

Identifying fundamental drivers of science and developing predictive models to capture its evolution are instrumental for the design of policies that can improve the scientific enterprise—for example, through enhanced career paths for scientists, better performance evaluation for organizations hosting research, discovery of novel effective funding vehicles, and even identification of promising regions along the scientific frontier. The science of science uses large-scale data on the production of science to search for universal and domain-specific patterns. Here, we review recent developments in this transdisciplinary field.

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