The Nearly Universal Link Between the Age of Past Knowledge and Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs in Science and Technology, Science Advances
Scientists and inventors can draw on an ever-expanding literature for the building-blocks of tomorrow’s ideas, yet little is known about how combinations of past work are related to future discoveries. Our analysis parameterizes the age distribution of a work’s references and revealed three links between the age of prior knowledge and hit papers and patents. First, works that cite literature with a low mean age and high age variance are in a citation “hotspot;” these works double their likelihood of being in the top 5% or better of citations. Second, the hotspot is nearly universal in all branches of science and technology and is increasingly predictive of a work’s future citation impact. Third, a scientist or inventor is significantly more likely to write a paper in the hotspot when they coauthor vs. working alone. Our findings are based on all 28,426,345 scientific papers in the Web of Science, 1945-2013, and all 5,382,833 U.S. patents, 1950-2010 and reveal new antecedents of high impact science and the link between prior literature and tomorrow’s breakthrough ideas.