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Early stage identification of breakthroughs at the interface of science and technology: lessons drawn from a landmark publication


Certain scholarly publications or patent publications may signal breakthroughs in basic scientific research or radical new technological developments. Are there bibliographical indicators that enable an analysis of R&D dynamics to help identify these ‘local revolutions’ in science and technology? The focus of this paper is on early stage identification of potential breakthroughs in science that may evolve into new technology. We analyse bibliographic information for a typical example of such a breakthrough to pinpoint information that has the potential to be used as bibliographic indicator. The typical example used is the landmark research paper by Novoselov et al. (Science 306(5696): 666–669, 2004) concerning graphene. After an initial accumulation of theoretical knowledge about graphene over a period of 50 years this publication of the discovery of a method to produce graphene had an immediate and significant impact on the R&D community; it provides a link between theory, experimental verification, and new technological applications. The publication of this landmark discovery marks a sharp rise in the number of scholarly publications, and not much later an increase in the number of filings for related patent applications. Noticeable within 2 years after publication is an above average influx of researchers and of organisations. Changes in the structure of co-citation term maps point to renewed interest from theoretical physicists. The analysis uncovered criteria that can help in identifying at early stage potential breakthroughs that link science and technology.

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  1. 1.

    Interface = ‘a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc. meet and interact’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

  2. 2.

    Graphene is a material that in its purest form is a one-atom thick layer of carbon foil. In graphene, carbon atoms are densely packed in a regular (hexagonal) pattern. These hexagonal patterns are the basic structural element of related materials, including graphite, charcoal, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes. Graphene can also be thought of being an indefinitely large aromatic molecule. The hexagonal arrangement of carbon atoms in a single layer results in quantum mechanical effects that manifest at macro scale as extraordinary properties. Its interactions with other materials and with light in combination with its inherently two-dimensional nature produce unique properties, such as the bipolar transistor effect, ballistic transport of charges and large quantum oscillations. High-quality graphene is strong, light, almost transparent and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity.

  3. 3.

    ‘Free form’ is to be understood as a one-atom thick layer of graphene placed on a substrate. The only function of the substrate is to support and fix the graphene layer. The graphene in the layer behaves as if it were freestanding.

  4. 4.

    See the short description of Koshland’s Cha–Cha–Cha theory in footnote 6 on p 4.

  5. 5.

    The three different types of scientific discovery according to Koshland (2007) are:

    Charge discoveries, not necessarily simple, solve scientific problems that are quite obvious and fit within the at that moment existing theoretical framework.

    Challenge discoveries are a response to an accumulation of facts or concepts that are unexplained by or incongruous with scientific theories of the time, ‘paradigm shifts’ (Kuhn 1962).

    Chance discoveries are those that are often called serendipitous. Van Andel (1994) denotes discoveries of this type ‘unsought findings’.

  6. 6.

    A more accurate approximation for the date of a discovery would be the date a manuscript was submitted for the first time to a publisher. This submission date is not available in the databases and could therefore not be used. The publication itself is not necessarily the first attempt to publish the discovery resulting in an even more imprecise time stamp for the discovery.

  7. 7.

    According to Thomson-Reuters information terms for a topic are extracted from the title, the abstract, the author keywords of a publication, and from KeyWords Plus®. ‘KeyWords Plus are words and phrases harvested from the titles of the cited articles.’

  8. 8.

    In this study we focus on publications containing original scientific work, and therefore only publications of the WoS types ‘article’ and ‘letter’ are used in the analysis.

  9. 9.

    EPO Worldwide Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT).

  10. 10.

    The Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC), which is the result of cooperation between the EPO and US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) replaced in 2013 the ECLA, ICO, and the classification of the USPTO (US Patent Classification).

  11. 11.

    We used ECLA and ICO codes C01B31/04H, H01F41/42, H01F42/44, H01F10/00C, H01L29/16G, M01B204/00, M01B204/02, M01B204/06, M01B204/20, T01F10/00C, T01L29/16G.

  12. 12.

    Patent rights are nowadays national rights granted by a sovereign state.

  13. 13.

    In the US the list of citations appear on the front-page of the patent publication.

  14. 14.

    The volume in which the ‘Novoselov paper’ was published.

  15. 15.

    Inspection of the patent file for the patent application from 2004 citing the ‘Novoselov paper’ leads to the conclusion that at a later stage in the patenting process this citation was added; most probably in 2006.

  16. 16.

    We included only publications with document types research articles and letter, from 2004 to 2005.

  17. 17.

    In this paper the classification of a publication is the classification as it appears in the Web of Science database.

  18. 18.

    The science levels are assigned to journals on the basis of the addresses of the authors of the publications in a journal. Based on the addresses the affiliation of an author is classified as university, hospital, or company. The distribution of the three classes determines the science level assigned to a journal.

  19. 19.

    In order to get reliable results (Tijssen 2010) not all journals, and hence not all publications, have a science level assigned. This results in numbers of publications that are somewhat lower than those presented in Table 1.

  20. 20.

    These pictures were presented before at the STI 2012 conference (Winnink 2012).

  21. 21.


  22. 22.

    First author = the author first mentioned on a publication, first organisation = the affiliation of the first author of a publication. Ambiguity in names and the effects for the analysis are discussed in section “Influence of ambiguity of author and organisation names”.

  23. 23.

    Only publications covered in TR/CWTS WoS of type article and letter are taken into account to focus on publications containing original research.


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The authors kindly thank Prof. J.W.M. Frenken, Leiden Institute of Physics—Leiden University, and Prof. A.F.J. van Raan, Centre for Science and Technology Studies—Leiden University, for their useful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments during peer review of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to J. J. Winnink.

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Winnink, J.J., Tijssen, R.J.W. Early stage identification of breakthroughs at the interface of science and technology: lessons drawn from a landmark publication. Scientometrics 102, 113–134 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-014-1451-z

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  • Breakthrough
  • Early stage
  • Graphene
  • Science–technology interface
  • Weak signals