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A century of scientific publication: towards a theorization of growth behavior and research-orientation


This paper attempts to provide an overview of scientific publication trends over the period of a century (1900–2017). It then drills down to three important explorations that depict world trends and the development of science, namely: the growth behaviors of different time periods; fields and research orientations; and cumulative capability patterns of different countries by size of population. To study growth behaviors, we employed logistic growth function to model the world publication trajectory. We observed that the carrying capacity of the world publication trajectory has increased, attaining a much higher level of production. The rate of publication for the period of 1990–2017 has elongated the cycle and witnessed a longer trend towards saturation. For research activities in recent decades, we noted that they were performed by coordinated entities that are endowed to chart a multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary research path. Publications were found to be oriented towards medical and industrial applications, which can be attributed to the attempts of emerging countries which aspire to develop science-based industries. The analyses and observations in this paper have enabled us to corroborate our previous findings on growth behaviors of scientific publications. We believe that these findings will allow us to theorize further on the world development of science, and realize a strong theoretical narrative for a century of publication in the near future.

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  1. 1.

    The use of technology derived new fields of science (e.g. computer science). In addition, the advancement of certain technologies (e.g. precision machinery, 3D printers, computing power, etc.) allowed scientists to pursue scientific experiments/research (e.g. testing and screening of lifestyle diseases in biomedical research; large scale modeling of economics activities; simulation to generate social contexts; etc.) that were thought to be impossible just a few decades ago.

  2. 2.

    It is fair to argue that the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and liberalism led to the democratization movement in the subsequent two centuries.

  3. 3.

    An online citation indexing database, a bibliometric product which was initiated by ISI.

  4. 4.

    The final updating task was done via National Tsing Hua University (NTHU)’s online library system.

  5. 5.

    The function that is fitted to the data points would enable us to project future scientific production. See Wong and Wang (2015, pp. 92–93) for more discussion on logistic growth function.

  6. 6.

    We omitted the count for 2018, as we did not manage to mine the exact total publications of that year.

  7. 7.

    This echoes the view of Leydesdorff and Wagner (2009).

  8. 8.

    See Wong and Wang (2015).

  9. 9.

    This should not lead to the view/conclusion that China and India have yet to attain sufficient competencies to pursue science. Many universities and research institutes in relatively developed provinces/cities of China (e.g. Beijing and Shanghai) are pursuing state-of-the-art scientific and technological research activities. Nonetheless, large countries like China and India tend to face issues of mobilizing (sufficient) resources to empower the scientific capabilities of less developed provinces/regions. Coordinating extensively at the horizontal level (Doner and Schneider 2016, p. 612) to advance research entities across regions and coordinating massively at the vertical level to empower all (potential) agents of change across regions are not as simple as coordinating for smaller economies.

  10. 10.

    South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have been acknowledged as ‘tiger economies’ in Asia. This reputation is highly associated with their productive (technological) activities and advanced socio-economic development (Hobday 1997; Mathews and Cho 2000; Wong et al. 2018).

  11. 11.

    On the other hand, some countries fell into Cold War conflict.

  12. 12.

    The top 200 titles are according to publication counts. For the first 50 years, The British Medical Journal with 68,447 articles is ranked at the top, while The Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society with 2132 articles is ranked at 200th.

  13. 13.

    See Wong and Goh (2015).


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This work was supported by Laboratory Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of Republic of Korea and Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2018-LAB-1250001). The author would like to thank Robert Tijssen for sharing the list of titles under CWTS journal classification. The author also would like to acknowledge the research supports from University of Malaya and Institute for Economic Research at Seoul National University (during my sabbatical leave in Korea).

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Correspondence to Chan-Yuan Wong.

Appendix A

Appendix A

see Table 6.

Table 6 Research orientations for all downloaded titles based on CWTS classification

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Wong, C. A century of scientific publication: towards a theorization of growth behavior and research-orientation. Scientometrics 119, 357–377 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-019-03048-5

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  • World publications
  • Growth behavior
  • Research orientations
  • Coordinated research entities
  • 117 years