Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact

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Science  25 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6157, pp. 468-472
DOI: 10.1126/science.1240474

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Making an Impact

How big a role do unconventional combinations of existing knowledge play in the impact of a scientific paper? To examine this question, Uzzi et al. (p. 468) studied 17.9 million research articles across five decades of the Web of Science, the largest repository of scientific research. Scientific work typically appeared to draw on highly conventional, familiar mixtures of knowledge. The highest-impact papers were not the ones that had the greatest novelty, but had a combination of novelty and otherwise conventional combinations of prior work.


Novelty is an essential feature of creative ideas, yet the building blocks of new ideas are often embodied in existing knowledge. From this perspective, balancing atypical knowledge with conventional knowledge may be critical to the link between innovativeness and impact. Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern: The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations. Papers of this type were twice as likely to be highly cited works. Novel combinations of prior work are rare, yet teams are 37.7% more likely than solo authors to insert novel combinations into familiar knowledge domains.

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