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"Sleeping beauties": why some studies only become influential after decades of obscurity

One day they'll see. One day...
One day they'll see. One day...

Every now and again, a scientific paper will get published, fall straight into obscurity, and only decades later have its importance recognized by other scientists.

These papers have been dubbed "sleeping beauties" — and they turn out to be more common than you'd expect. Even one of Albert Einstein's papers languished for nearly 60 years before it became widely cited.

That's according to a new analysis of "sleeping beauties" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by Alessandro Flammini, an associate professor of computing and informatics at Indiana University Bloomington. His team combed through 22.8 million studies spanning more than a century to see when papers reached their peak of influence — as measured by citations by other papers.

Flammini and his co-authors turned up "sleeping beauties" in all sorts of fields, particularly physics, chemistry, mathematics, and medicine. Four of their top 15 beauties were published more than 100 years ago. Many waited 50, 70, or even 100 years to get — at long last! — their due:

(Flammini et al, 2015)

It even happens to rock-star scientists. Back in 1935, Albert Einstein co-authored a paper with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen laying out a paradox around quantum entanglement (in which particles can remain linked no matter how far apart they get). Although the paper got attention early on, Flammini found that it didn't really become widely cited among other scientists until 1994.

Why some research takes decades to become influential

"No one's citing your paper? Here's the world's tiniest violin." (AFP/Getty Images)

"Oh, no one's citing your paper? Here. Here's the world's tiniest violin." (AFP/Getty Images)

So why does this happen? Some research may be decades ahead of its time simply because the practical applications aren't immediately obvious.

In 1958, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published a paper on "Preparation of Graphitic Oxide." That didn't become influential until the 2000s, when scientists became very interested in the band structure of graphite, which underpinned the discovery of graphene — a new wonder material with potential applications in electronics and computing.

Similarly, there are a number of statistics papers that languish in obscurity for years. One 1901 paper by statistician Karl Pearson ("On Lines and Planes of Closest Fit to Systems of Points in Space") didn't become widely cited until 2002. One possibility is that no one could really use some of these older statistical tools until the recent availability of large data sets.

But Flammini and his co-authors found that many "sleeping beauties" became rediscovered later simply because they aroused interest in other fields. For example, one 1977 paper in the Journal of Anthropological Research that modeled conflict in small groups went largely unnoticed for 25 years until it made the jump to another field, getting highlighted by an influential 2002 paper within network science.

This rediscovery in another field seems to be a plausible explanation: "for about 80% of the top [sleeping beauties], as much as 75% or more of citations are of interdisciplinary nature," Flammini and his co-authors write. But it's still not entirely clear what causes the rediscovery: "Further work is needed to uncover the general mechanisms that may be held responsible for the awakening of [sleeping beauties]."

Ultimately, however, Flammini and his co-authors argue that these sorts of papers "are not exceptional outliers." Right now, scientists tend to be judged on whether their papers are widely cited in the few years immediately after publication, on the belief that a study's window to make an impact is relatively short. That's usually true, statistically speaking. Still, there's always a chance an obscure paper may one day get its recognition.