Refining search terms for nanotechnology


The ability to delineate the boundaries of an emerging technology is central to obtaining an understanding of the technology’s research paths and commercialization prospects. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the case of nanotechnology (hereafter identified as “nano”) given its current rapid growth and multidisciplinary nature. (Under the rubric of nanotechnology, we also include nanoscience and nanoengineering.) Past efforts have utilized several strategies, including simple term search for the prefix nano, complex lexical and citation-based approaches, and bootstrapping techniques. This research introduces a modularized Boolean approach to defining nanotechnology which has been applied to several research and patenting databases. We explain our approach to downloading and cleaning data, and report initial results. Comparisons of this approach with other nanotechnology search formulations are presented. Implications for search strategy development and profiling of the nanotechnology field are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    Here, we follow the definition developed by the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) which defines nanotechnology as “encompassing the science, engineering, and technology related to the understanding and control of matter at the length scale of approximately 1–100 nanometers.” Importantly, NNI adds that “nanotechnology is not merely working with matter at the nanoscale, but also research and development of materials, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions due to their nanoscale dimensions and components” (PCAST 2005).

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  3. 3.

    The CREA project involved researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovations Research (Fhg-ISI), Germany, the Technology Policy and Assessment Center at Georgia Institute of Technology (USA), and Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) at Sussex University, UK, with sponsorship from the European Union’s program in New and Emerging Science and Technologies (NEST), see Heinze et al. (2007).

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  5. 5.

    Prior to determining our search strategy, we consulted with others in the nanotechnology research community. In December 2005, we participated in a conference call involving members of the UCLA Nanobank team, CNS-ASU, CNS-UCSB, and other nano projects to discuss nano search strategies and information sharing. We also initiated contacts with Duke University (Giannela) and the European Union PRIME network (Mangematin) to share ideas and, potentially, to share nano information. We also interact on an ongoing basis with Georgia Tech colleague Stuart Graham, who is working on a UCLA-Harvard nano project, primarily focusing on nanopatenting.

  6. 6.

    Modifications of this search string for the EI Village databases (INSPEC and Compendex) are available on request.


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Significant research assistance in search definition and database development was provided by Li Tang, Sharyn Finney, Pratik Mehta and Luke McCloud. Rich Kolar developed and generated the patent searches and databases. This research was undertaken at Georgia Tech with support by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU), funded by the National Science Foundation (Award No. 0531194), and support by the National Partnership for Managing Upstream Innovation: The Case of Nanoscience and Technology (North Carolina State University; Award No. EEC-0438684). The findings and observations contained in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Jan Youtie.

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Porter, A.L., Youtie, J., Shapira, P. et al. Refining search terms for nanotechnology. J Nanopart Res 10, 715–728 (2008).

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  • Bibliometric analysis
  • Nanoscience and engineering
  • Nanotechnology publication
  • Nanopatenting
  • Research profiling
  • Search strategies
  • Nanoinformatics