A typology of scientific breakthroughs

Authors : Mignon Wuestman, Jarno Hoekman, Koen Frenken

Scientific breakthroughs are commonly understood as discoveries that transform the knowledge frontier and have a major impact on science, technology, and society. Prior literature studying breakthroughs generally treats them as a homogeneous group in attempts to identify supportive conditions for their occurrence.

In this paper, we argue that there are different types of scientific breakthroughs, which differ in their disciplinary occurrence and are associated with different considerations of use and citation impact patterns.

We develop a typology of scientific breakthroughs based on three binary dimensions of scientific discoveries and use this typology to analyze qualitatively the content of 335 scientific articles that report on breakthroughs.

For each dimension, we test associations with scientific disciplines, reported use considerations, and scientific impact. We find that most scientific breakthroughs are driven by a question and in line with literature, and that paradigm shifting discoveries are rare.

Regarding the scientific impact of breakthrough as measured by citations, we find that an article that answers an unanswered question receives more citations compared to articles that were not motivated by an unanswered question.

We conclude that earlier research in which breakthroughs were operationalized as highly cited scientific articles may thus be biased against the latter.

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00079