The dual frontier: Patented inventions and prior scientific advance

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Science  11 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 583-587
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam9527

Picking up a patent

What is the relationship between patents and scientific advances? Ahmadpoor and Jones devised a metric for the “distance” between patentable inventions and prior research to study this question. They analyzed the relationship between 4.8 million U.S. patents and 32 million research articles. Universities tended to cite their own research directly in their patents (in other words, a distance of 1), but the distance was greater for companies, suggesting that companies may rely on outsiders for their foundational research. The distance varied by discipline, with nanotechnology and computer science having the shortest distances between published research and patents.

Science, this issue p. 583


The extent to which scientific advances support marketplace inventions is largely unknown. We study 4.8 million U.S. patents and 32 million research articles to determine the minimum citation distance between patented inventions and prior scientific advances. We find that most cited research articles (80%) link forward to a future patent. Similarly, most patents (61%) link backward to a prior research article. Linked papers and patents typically stand 2 to 4 degrees distant from the other domain. Yet, advances directly along the patent-paper boundary are notably more impactful within their own domains. The distance metric further provides a typology of the fields, institutions, and individuals involved in science-to-technology linkages. Overall, the findings are consistent with theories that emphasize substantial and fruitful connections between patenting and prior scientific inquiry.

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