The Life Cycle Of Ideas

How scientific concepts rise and fall

Click to see image bigger. Illustration by Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi, Glauco Mantegari, Pietro Guinea Montalvo, and Davide Ciuffi

Every scientific idea has its day. Theories are born and experiments are designed; results are put to the test, then disproved or accepted as canon. As scientists discuss an idea, they cite the paper that proposed it in their own work. Then, as the conversation moves on, references to the paper drop off. The rise and fall of citations serves to measure the lifespan of a paper’s underlying ideas. Popular Science visualized that pattern across disciplines. Generally, citations peak more quickly today than they did 50 years ago. According to Jevin West, an information scientist at the University of Washington, that trend could be because there are more scientists tackling problems, or because technology has connected them better, accelerating the conversation.

  • Life sciences tend to have a flatter citations trend [shaded portion], perhaps because ideas in the field are easier for other experts to grasp—in contrast to fields like mathematics—so it takes less time for them to catch on.
  • Among the authors who wrote multiple top papers [arcs that link dots] are five Nobel laureates. John Pople, a theoretical chemist who won in 1998, appears twice in multidisciplinary chemistry and three times in physical chemistry.
  • Large numbers of authors [dots] tend to appear on more recent papers, as in environmental science. Ambitious experiments today can require hundreds of scientists, and in some fields big collaborations can lead to very long author lists.
  • The most-cited papers [black music notes]have longer lifetimes than others [shaded portions]. Some are methods papers, which lay out experimental techniques other scientists use. Others articulate important theories, cited for decades.

Data provided by Thomson Reuters Web of Science; Consultation by jevin west, university of Washington; Analysis and Data visualization by Accurat.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.