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Why it has become more difficult to predict Nobel Prize winners: a bibliometric analysis of nominees and winners of the chemistry and physics prizes (1901–2007)


We propose a comprehensive bibliometric study of the profile of Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and physics from 1901 to 2007, based on citation data available over the same period. The data allows us to observe the evolution of the profiles of winners in the years leading up to—and following—nominations and awarding of the Nobel Prize. The degree centrality and citation rankings in these fields confirm that the Prize is awarded at the peak of the winners’ citation history, despite a brief Halo Effect observable in the years following the attribution of the Prize. Changes in the size and organization of the two fields result in a rapid decline of predictive power of bibliometric data over the century. This can be explained not only by the growing size and fragmentation of the two disciplines, but also, at least in the case of physics, by an implicit hierarchy in the most legitimate topics within the discipline, as well as among the scientists selected for the Nobel Prize. Furthermore, the lack of readily-identifiable dominant contemporary physicists suggests that there are few new paradigm shifts within the field, as perceived by the scientific community as a whole.

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  1. Centrality is defined as Freeman’s degree centrality of authors in a co-citation network (Freeman 1977/1978). It is equal to the total number of links an author has with all other authors in a network of co-citations.

  2. Although we have analyzed the data for the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, we chose not to include them in this paper. The citation patterns and statistics observed are very different from those in physics and chemistry. Prizes in physiology and medicine seem to depend more often on practical applications and seem less dependant on highly cited published “discoveries” than they are in physics and chemistry. Citation data are thus even less predictive of Nobel in physiology and medicine than they are in Physics and Chemistry.

  3. These experiments demonstrated the electron’s energy levels and thus supported Bohr’s atomic model. Bohr himself had won the Nobel Prize for his model only three years earlier, in 1922.

  4. The results using citation and centrality rankings being similar, we have omitted the latter from the graphs.

  5. The PACS numbers were originally developed by the American Institute of Physics as a way to identify and distinguish between different subfields of physics. They are now widely used within the discipline.

  6. The prize was shared between Davis and Koshiba for the detection of cosmic neutrinos, and Giacconi for work leading to the detection of cosmic X-ray sources.


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Correspondence to Matthew L. Wallace.

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Gingras, Y., Wallace, M.L. Why it has become more difficult to predict Nobel Prize winners: a bibliometric analysis of nominees and winners of the chemistry and physics prizes (1901–2007). Scientometrics 82, 401–412 (2010).

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  • Nobel Prize
  • Citation
  • Centrality
  • Scientific disciplines