Explore with caution: mapping the evolution of scientific interest in Physics

Aleta,Alberto; Meloni,Sandro; Perra,Nicola; Moreno,Yamir;
EPJ Data Science 8, 27 (2019)

In the book The Essential Tension Thomas Kuhn described the conflict between tradition and innovation in scientific research –i.e., the desire to explore new promising areas, counterposed to the need to capitalize on the work done in the past. While it is true that along their careers many scientists probably felt this tension, only few works have tried to quantify it. Here, we address this question by analyzing a large-scale dataset, containing all the papers published by the American Physical Society (APS) in more than 25 years, which allows for a better understanding of scientists’ careers evolution in Physics. We employ the Physics and Astronomy Classification Scheme (PACS) present in each paper to map the scientific interests of 181, 397 authors and their evolution along the years. Our results indeed confirm the existence of the “essential tension” with scientists balancing between exploring the boundaries of their area and exploiting previous work. In particular, we found that although the majority of physicists change the topics of their research, they stay within the same broader area thus exploring with caution new scientific endeavors. Furthermore, we quantify the flows of authors moving between different subfields and pinpoint which areas are more likely to attract or donate researchers to the other ones. Overall, our results depict a very distinctive portrait of the evolution of research interests in Physics and can help in designing specific policies for the future.

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