Moving Beyond Bibliometrics: Understanding Breakthrough Emergence through Missed Opportunities; a framework for failures in identifying breakthrough opportunities

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Who is most likely to discover a breakthrough? Why are some scientists more successful than others at discovering them? By using extant theories of breakthrough emergence to predict a groundbreaking discovery in biology, RNA interference, I show that the explanatory power of combining all current theories are weak because they sample on rare successes rather than the multiple instances of failure in the discovery process. Instead, I focus on understanding these failures by interviewing scientists with high potential of discovering breakthroughs in a case historical analysis. My findings suggest that the seminal discovery was missed several times not only due to difficulties in solving a particular problem but also due to failures in identifying breakthrough opportunities. I propose a cognitive framework with institutional underpinnings at the basis of these failures. In the problem identification stage, framing barriers from pursuing normal science and existing boundary barriers between communities of scientists contribute to difficulties in identifying the breakthrough opportunity by misrepresenting the magnitude of the problem. In the problem-solving stage, scientists are constrained by paradigmatic pressures to avoid being wrong, and coupled with boundary barriers similar anti-dogmatic observations stay isolated and unsubstantiated, thus diminishing confidence to identify a new revolutionary paradigm. 


The author: “This work has implications in the design of organizations and institutions that partake in scientific discovery. Understanding the barriers to scientific knowledge creation is vital not only for academic administrators but also crucial from both managerial and policy standpoints. It illustrates the fundamental differences inherent in the production of scientific and technological knowledge, and directly speaks to the organizational design of science-based firms (where the literature has mainly focused on technological innovation and remains thin) by providing structural characteristics and policies that foster the production of groundbreaking discoveries. These include facilitating interdisciplinary research teams, encouraging cross-organism and 33 

cross-field conference attendance, and providing incentives that enable the flexibility to take on side projects at the fringe. “



Sen Chai (LWP-HLS and NBER) ”  “Moving Beyond Bibliometrics: Understanding Breakthrough Emergence through Missed Opportunities” 


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About Wilfred Mijnhardt
RMIMR is my virtual playground, a place to reflect on issues from my professional context, my job as Policy Director at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). RSM is the international university based business school at Erasmus University Rotterdam. More info here: Here is my list of relevant publications on the topic of my RMIMR weblog: The rss feed for my RMIMR collection is here: Here is my other weblog on impact of research:

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