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Sleeping Beauty Research Papers Can Languish For Decades, Even For Albert Einstein

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Sleeping beauty research papers can lie dormant for years, according to a new study from Indiana University. Some scientific papers have an immediate impact, while others languish in obscurity forever. Still other papers do not become popular among the scientific community for a long time, but are later widely accepted among researchers, investigators concluded.

Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous physicist of all time, was a co-author of one of these sleeping beauty papers. In 1935, he published a paper, along with fellow physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, detailing the entanglement of particles. However, the EPR pardox (named after the three authors) was not widely cited in scientific papers until 1994.

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

Researchers examined a massive database of tens of millions of articles published over more than 100 years. They compared the publication date of papers with citations of the articles to determine how long it took for each article to become popular among researchers. They also looked for an "awakening time," when an article might receive a burst of citations, denoting a period of interest in the paper.

Some discoveries are so far ahead of their times that advances do not have a practical purpose for decades.

Statistician Karl Pearson was found to have the longest period of dormancy of any of the sleeping beauty papers examined for a 1901 work that did not become an accepted part of scientific literature until 2002.

"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," Flammini said.

The highest rate of papers which remain dormant for long periods were found in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, multidisciplinary science, and internal and general medicine. Researchers believe interdisciplinary papers could receive delayed recognition due to the time it takes investigators in specific fields to find applications for the papers to their own line of study.

Four of the top 15 sleeping beauties recognized in the study were published more than a century ago. Investigators in the study were unable to identify the triggers that bring obscure papers greater recognition. The journals with the most sleeping beauty papers were PNAS, Nature and Science.

Analysis of sleeping beauty scientific papers was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Photo: Thierry Ehrmann | Flickr

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