Letter

Quantifying patterns of research-interest evolution

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0078 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0078
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Abstract

To understand quantitatively how scientists choose and shift their research focus over time is of high importance, because it affects the ways in which scientists are trained, science is funded, knowledge is organized and discovered, and excellence is recognized and rewarded1,​2,​3,​4,​5,​6,​7,​8,​9. Despite extensive investigation into various factors that influence a scientist’s choice of research topics8,​9,​10,​11,​12,​13,​14,​15,​16,​17,​18,​19,​20,​21, quantitative assessments of mechanisms that give rise to macroscopic patterns characterizing research-interest evolution of individual scientists remain limited. Here we perform a large-scale analysis of publication records, and we show that changes in research interests follow a reproducible pattern characterized by an exponential distribution. We identify three fundamental features responsible for the observed exponential distribution, which arise from a subtle interplay between exploitation and exploration in research-interest evolution5,22. We developed a random-walk-based model, allowing us to accurately reproduce the empirical observations. This work uncovers and quantitatively analyses macroscopic patterns that govern changes in research interests, thereby showing that there is a high degree of regularity underlying scientific research and individual careers.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A.-L. Barabasi for providing the initial dataset, A.-L. Barabási and G. Korniss for discussions. This work was supported by the Army Research Laboratory under Cooperative Agreement Number W911NF-09-2-0053. T.J. is supported by the Natural Science Foundation of China (61603309) and CCF-Tencent RAGR (20160107). D.W. is supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-15-1-0162 and FA9550-17-1-0089. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. College of Computer and Information Science, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China.

    • Tao Jia
  2. Laboratory for Software and Knowledge Engineering, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China

    • Tao Jia
  3. Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA

    • Dashun Wang
  4. Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA

    • Dashun Wang
  5. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinios 60208, USA

    • Dashun Wang
  6. Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York 12180, USA

    • Boleslaw K. Szymanski
  7. Department of Computer Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York 12180, USA

    • Boleslaw K. Szymanski
  8. Społeczna Akademia Nauk, 90-113 Łódź, Poland

    • Boleslaw K. Szymanski

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Contributions

T.J., D.W. and B.K.S. designed the research. T.J. performed numerical simulations and analysed the empirical data. T.J., D.W. and B.K.S. prepared the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Tao Jia or Dashun Wang or Boleslaw K. Szymanski.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

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