pp 1–22 | Cite as

On serendipity in science: discovery at the intersection of chance and wisdom

  • Samantha CopelandEmail author


‘Serendipity’ is a category used to describe discoveries in science that occur at the intersection of chance and wisdom. In this paper, I argue for understanding serendipity in science as an emergent property of scientific discovery, describing an oblique relationship between the outcome of a discovery process and the intentions that drove it forward. The recognition of serendipity is correlated with an acknowledgment of the limits of expectations about potential sources of knowledge. I provide an analysis of serendipity in science as a defense of this definition and its implications, drawing from theoretical and empirical research on experiences of serendipity as they occur in science and elsewhere. I focus on three interrelated features of serendipity in science. First, there are variations of serendipity. The process of serendipitous discovery can be complex. Second, a valuable outcome must be obtained before reflection upon the significance of the unexpected observation or event in respect to that outcome can take place. Therefore, serendipity is retrospectively categorized. Third, the primacy of epistemic expectations is elucidated. Finally, I place this analysis within discussions in philosophy of science regarding the impact of interpersonal competition upon the number and significance of scientific discoveries. Thus, the analysis of serendipity offered in this paper contributes to discussions about the social-epistemological aspects of scientific discovery and has normative implications for the structure of epistemically effective scientific communities.


Serendipity Scientific discovery Social-epistemology of science Chance 



I would like to extend thanks to the CauseHealth team, my dissertation committee, the Dalhousie Philosophy Department colloquium, and various conference audiences for their constructive criticism and insightful questions. Two anonymous reviewers provided thoughtful advice on how to improve upon previous versions. Funding was provided by The Research Council of Norway (FRIPRO). The Research Council of Norway (NFR, FRIPRO scheme).


  1. Andriani, P. (2017). Exaptation, serendipity and aging. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 163(April), 30–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anjum, R. L., & Mumford, S. (2017). Emergence and demergence. In M. Paulini, P. Orilia, & F. Orilia (Eds.), Philosophical and scientific perspectives on downward causation (pp. 92–109). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  3. Austin, J. H. (2003). Chase, chance, and creativity: The lucky art of novelty. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  4. Barber, B., & Fox, R. C. (1958). The case of the floppy-eared rabbits: An instance of serendipity gained and serendipity lost. American Journal of Sociology, 64(2), 128–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baumeister, A. A., Hawkins, M. F., & López-Muñoz, F. (2010). Toward standardized usage of the word serendipity in the historiography of psychopharmacology. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 19, 253–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bedessem, B. & Ruphy, S. (2016). Serendipity: An argument for scientific freedom? Presented to the Philosophy of Science Association, Atlanta (November). Accessed 14 July 2017.
  7. Boyer, T. (2014). Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Or, whether scientists should publish intermediate results. Synthese, 191, 17–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bush, V. (1945). Science: The endless frontier. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  9. Chalmers, D. (2006). Strong and weak emergence. In P. Clayton & P. Davies (Eds.), The re-emergence of emergence (pp. 244–254). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Clayton, P. (2006). Conceptual foundations of emergence theory. In P. Clayton & P. Davies (Eds.), The re-emergence of emergence (pp. 1–31). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Copeland, S. M. (2015). The case of the triggered memory: Serendipitous discovery and the ethics of clinical research. Dalhousie University (Ph.D. Thesis).Google Scholar
  12. Cunha, M. P. E. (2005). Serendipity: Why some organizations are luckier than others. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.882782.
  13. Cunha, M. P. E., Clegg, S. R., & Mendonça, S. (2010). On serendipity and organizing. European Management Journal, 28, 319–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cunha, M. P., Rego, A., Clegg, S., & Lindsay, G. (2015). The dialectics of serendipity. European Management Journal, 33, 9–18.Google Scholar
  15. Darbellay, F., Moody, Z., Sedooka, A., & Steffen, G. (2014). Interdisciplinary research boosted by serendipity. Creativity Research Journal, 26(1), 1–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. de Rond, M. & Morley, I. (2010). Introduction: Fortune and the prepared mind. In M. de Rond & I. Morley (Eds.), Serendipity: Fortune and the prepared mind (pp. 1–10). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. de Rond, M. (2014). The structure of serendipity. Culture and Organization, 20(5), 342–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Diggins, F. W. E. (1999). The true history of the discovery of penicillin, with refutation of the misinformation in the literature. British Journal of Biomedical Science, 56, 83–93.Google Scholar
  19. Erdelez, S. (1997). Information encountering: A conceptual framework for accidental information discovery. In ISIC ’96 Proceedings of an international conference on Information seeking in context (pp. 412–421). London, UK: Taylor Graham Publishing.Google Scholar
  20. Estes, J. (2016). Serendipity: An ecologist’s quest to understand nature. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  21. Fine, G. A., & Deegan, J. G. (1996). Three principles of Serendip: Insight, chance, and discovery in qualitative research. Qualitative Studies in Education, 9(4), 434–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fleck, L. (1979). Genesis and development of a scientific fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. Fleming, S. A. (1945). Nobel lecture: Penicillin. Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine, 1942–1962, 83–93.Google Scholar
  24. Foster, A. E., & Ellis, D. (2014). Serendipity and its study. Journal of Documentation, 70(6), 1015–1038.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gest, H. (1997). Serendipity in scientific discovery: A closer look. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 41(1), 21–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gibbons, M. (2012). Reassessing discovery: Rosalind Franklin, scientific visualization, and the structure of DNA. Philosophy of Science, 79, 63–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Heesen, R. (forthcoming). Communism and the incentive to share in science. Philosophy of Science. doi: 10.1086/693875.
  28. Kantorovich, A. (1993). Scientific discovery: Logic and tinkering. New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  29. Kefalidou, G., & Sharples, S. (2016). Encouraging serendipity in research: Designing technologies to support connection-making. International Journal of Human–Computer Studies, 89, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kitcher, P. (1990). The division of cognitive labor. The Journal of Philosophy, 87(1), 5–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Koestler, A. (1964). The act of creation. London: Hutchinson & Co.Google Scholar
  32. Kohn, A. (1989). Fortune or failure: Missed opportunities and chance discoveries in science. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  33. Lawley, J. & Tompkins, P. (2008). Maximising serendipity?: The art of recognising and fostering potential. A systemic approach to change, resource document. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  34. Liestman, D. (1992). Chance in the midst of design: Approaches to library research serendipity. RQ, 31(4), 524–532.Google Scholar
  35. Makri, S., & Blandford, A. (2012). Coming across information serendipitously—Part 1: A process model. Journal of Documentation, 68(5), 684–705.Google Scholar
  36. McBirnie, A. (2008). Seeking serendipity: The paradox of control. Aslib Proceedings, 60(6), 600–618.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McBirnie, A., & Urquhart, C. (2011). Motifs: Dominant interaction patterns in event structures of serendipity. IR Information Research, 16(3). Accessed 5 Sept 2017.
  38. McCay-Peet, L. & Toms, E. G. (2010). The process of serendipity in knowledge work. In Proceedings of the third symposium on information interaction in context (New Brunswick, NJ, USA) (pp. 377–381). doi: 10.1145/1840784.1840842. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  39. McCay-Peet, L. (2011). Exploring serendipity’s precipitating conditions. In P. Campos, N. Graham, J. Jorge, N. Nunes, P. Palanque, & M. Winckler (Eds.), Lecture notes in computer science: Human–computer interaction, INTERACT 2011, Lisbon, Portugal (pp. 398–401). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McCay-Peet, L., & Wells, P. (2017). Serendipity in the sciences: Exploring the boundaries. Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institution of Science (PNSIS), 49(1), 97–116.Google Scholar
  41. McKinnon, R. (2014). You make your own luck. Metaphilosophy, 45(4–5), 558–577.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Merton, R. K. (1948). The bearing of empirical research upon the development of social theory. American Sociological Review, 13(5), 505–515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Merton, R. K., & Barber, E. (2004). The travels and adventures of serendipity: A study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Michener, W. K., Bildstein, K. L., McKee, A., Parmenter, R. R., Hargrove, W. W., McClearn, D., et al. (2009). Biological field stations: Research legacies and sites for serendipity. Bioscience, 59(4), 300–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Murayama, K., Nirei, M., & Shimizu, H. (2015). Management of science, serendipity, and research performance: Evidence from a survey of scientists in Japan and the U.S. Research Policy, 44, 862–873.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Napolitano, C. M. (2013). More than just a simple twist of fate: Serendipitous relations in developmental science. Human Development, 56(5), 291–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Nickles, T. (1997). Methods of discovery. Biology and Philosophy, 12, 127–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nutefall, J. E., & Ryder, P. M. (2010). The serendipitous research process. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(3), 228–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Roberts, R. (1989). Serendipity: Accidental discoveries in science. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  50. Rubin, V. L., Burkell, J., & Quan-Haase, A. (2011). Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: A grounded theory approach to blog analysis. Information Research, 16(3), 1–19.Google Scholar
  51. Solomon, Y. (2017). Temporal aspects of info-serendipity. Temporalités: Revue de sciences sociales et humaines. doi: 10.4000/temporalites.3523.
  52. Sommer, T. J. (2001). Suppression of scientific research: Bahramdipity and nulltiple scientific discoveries. Science and Engineering Ethics, 7(1), 77–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Strevens, M. (2003). The role of the priority rule in science. The Journal of Philosophy, 100(2), 55–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Strevens, M. (2017). Scientific sharing: Communism and the social contract. In T. Boyer-Kassem, C. May-Wilson & M. Weisberg (Eds.), Scientific collaboration and collective knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press. (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  55. Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable. New York City: Random House.Google Scholar
  56. Thagard, P. (1998a). Ulcers and bacteria I?: Discovery and acceptance. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science, 29(1), 107–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Thagard, P. (1998b). Ulcers and bacteria II: Instruments, experiments, and social interactions. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 29(2), 317–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Thagard, P. (2002). Curing cancer? Patrick Lee’s path to the reovirus treatment. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 16(1), 79–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Thagard, P. (2012). Creative combinations of representations, scientific discovery and technological invention. In R. W. Proctor & E. J. Capaldi (Eds.), Psychology of science: Implicit and explicit processes. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Thagard, P., & Croft, D. (1999). Scientific discovery and technological innovation: Ulcers, dinosaur extinction, and the programming language Java. In L. Magnani, N. Nersessian, & P. Thagard (Eds.), Model-based reasoning in scientific discovery (pp. 125–137). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. van Andel, P. (1994). Anatomy of the unsought finding. Serendipity: Origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 45(2), 631–648.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Walpole, H. (1789). Letter to Mrs. More. In Private Correspondance of Horace Walpole (1820) (Vol. IV, p. 483). London: Rodwell and Martin.Google Scholar
  63. Watson, J. & Crick, F. (1953). Molecular structure of nucleic acids-A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature, 4356(April 25), 737–738.Google Scholar
  64. Watson, J. (2010). The double helix: A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. W&N.Google Scholar
  65. Weisburg, M., & Muldoon, R. (2009). Epistemic landscapes and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy of Science, 76(2), 225–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Economics and BusinessNorwegian University of Life SciencesÅsNorway

Personalised recommendations