Sleeping Beauties

1 June 2015 at 3:18 pm 10 comments

| Peter Klein |

Quick, what do the following articles have in common?

  • Maslow, Abraham. 1943. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological Review 50(4): 370-376.
  • Forrester, Jay W. 1958. “Industrial dynamics: a major breakthrough for decision makers.” Harvard Business Review 36(4): 37-66.
  • Fisher, Irving. 1933. “The debt-deflation theory of great depressions.” 
    Econometrica 1(4): 337-357.
  • Fornell, Claes, and David F. Larker. 1981. “Evaluating structural equation models with unobservable variables and measurement error.” Journal of Marketing Research 18(1): 39-50.
  • Wechsler, Herbert. 1959. “Toward neutral principles of constitutional law.” Harvard Law Review 73(1): 1-35.
  • Ellsberg, Daniel. 1961. “Risk, ambiguity, and the savage axioms.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 75(4): 643-669.

350px-Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_Sleeping_BeautyAll are designated as “sleeping beauties,” papers that lie dormant for years after publication, then suddenly become highly influential. The term was coined by Anthony van Raan, but sleeping beauties were thought to be rare. A new paper in PNAS by Qing Ke, Emilio Ferrara, Filippo Radicchi, and Alessandro Flammini finds, by contrast, that sleeping beauties are fairly common. Formally, “The beauty coefficient value B for a given paper is based on the comparison between its citation history and a reference line that is determined only by its publication year, the maximum number of citations
received in a year (within a multiyear observation period), and the year when such maximum is achieved.” The authors take a large sample of papers from the American Physical Society and Web of Science and identify, describe, and analyze some prominent sleeping beauties. They focus mostly on the physical science, but include a few social science datasets in an online appendix, finding several papers including those above. (Most of the sleeping beauties in their social science sample are either experimental psychology papers or statistical or methodological papers that are not really about core social science theory or application.) I assume the social science papers also come from Web of Science, which may not include journals like Economica (hence no Coase 1937), and hence the list above is not totally intuitive.

Anyway, this should provoke some interesting discussion about the diffusion of knowledge. The presence of sleeping beauties could simply mean that some discoveries are difficult to understand and take a while to be appreciated, but could also reflect bandwagon effects, faddish citation practices, and other phenomena that cast doubt on the whig theory of science.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Divine Economy Consulting  |  1 June 2015 at 3:38 pm

    What is particularly bad is the Whig theory of science combined with the profession that positivism is applicable to the human sciences.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  1 June 2015 at 3:51 pm

    There’s an ungated version of the paper here:

  • 3. Warren Miller  |  1 June 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Perchance could we add Penrose (1959) to your list? Insofar as I’m aware, it wasn’t until Wernerfelt (1984) that her key ideas began to take root in papers. Of course, hers was a book, not a paper, and maybe that’s part of the problem. And, of course, she was a woman in a discipline then dominated by men, and that could be an even bigger hurdle for the diffusion of great research to clear.

  • 4. Howard Aldrich  |  1 June 2015 at 4:13 pm

    I have a personal example: my paper with Marlene Fiol, “Fools Rush In?” was published in AMR in 1994 but languished at never more than 81 citations for a 10 years & only about 300 for the first 9 years, total. It now has 2611! I guess we were irrelevant for a decade & then suddenly we got smarter…

  • 5. Peter Klein  |  1 June 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Howard, so your article lay dormant, and then fools rushed in? (Sorry, couldn’t resist. :) )

  • 6. Howard Aldrich  |  2 June 2015 at 1:42 am

    @petergklein so, when did you first notice it…

  • 7. Dick Langlois  |  2 June 2015 at 7:55 am

    Great post, Peter. I look forward to future posts to find out which papers are poisoned apples and which wicked step-mothers. I presume most papers published are dwarfs, and those that become classics right out of the gate are Prince Charmings. (Princes Charming?)

  • 8. Peter Klein  |  2 June 2015 at 10:06 am

    Many of mine seem to have gone into cryogenic storage.

  • 9. Randy  |  2 June 2015 at 10:08 am

    I see a different metaphor for Prince Charming that does Dick Langlois. How many sleeping beauties were actually awakened after lying comatose for years by the “kiss” of someone — as Warren Miller notes for Penrose (I see Joe Mahoney as her prince…)? Maslow was probably awakened by Douglas McGregor and a generation of intro management textbook writers in the 1970s. Forrester by the Club of Rome (charming, but deluded…)

  • 10. Peter Klein  |  2 June 2015 at 10:11 am

    Good point, Randy. Coase’s Nature of the Firm had several Charmings:

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