Atypical Combinations in Scientific Impact

June 30 2014
17:00, room 250 (Main Building, Lugano Campus)

Professor Brian Uzzi, Northwestern University

Often purported but rarely tested is the claim that science is spurred on when atypical ideas are united, inspiring fresh thinking to problems. Yet, many scientific ideas and innovations intentionally build in convention, rather than remove it.   Similarly, the adage, an "idea ahead of its time" reflects the riskiness of  ideas that embody knowledge far from conventional beliefs.  From this viewpoint, the relationship between atypical knowledge and conventional knowledge is critical to the link between innovativeness and impact.  However, little is known about the composition of this supposed balance.  Here, we analyzed all 17.9 million research papers in the web of science, circa 1945-2005 using a methodology that characterizes each paper's conventional and novel combinations of prior work.  We find that the premium often expressed for papers with novelty is at odds with the reality that most scientific work typically draws on highly conventional, familiar mixtures of knowledge.  Especially virtuous combinations are not characterized by novelty or conventionality alone.  Rather, the highest impact papers interject novelty into otherwise unusually conventional combinations of prior work, and remarkably, are twice as likely to top the citation distribution.  Finally, teams are more likely than solo scientists to interject novel combinations into their papers, suggesting that the exceptionalism of teams is an ability to incorporate novelty.  Finally, these empirical regularities are largely universal, appearing across fields and decades, suggesting fundamental rules about creativity in science.  At root, our work suggests that creativity in science appears to be a phenomenon of two extremes.  At one extreme is conventionality and at the other is novelty.  Curiously, advancing to the frontier of science appears best served not by efforts along one boundary or the other but with efforts that reach toward both frontiers.
About the speaker
Brian Uzzi is a globally recognized scientist, teacher, consultant and speaker on leadership, social networks, and new media. He holds the Richard L. Thomas Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He also co-directs NICO, the Northwestern University Institute on Complex Systems, is the faculty director of the Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative (KACI) and holds professorships in Sociology and the McCormick School of Engineering. He has lectured and advised companies and governments around the world and been on the faculties of INSEAD, University of Chicago, and Harvard University. In 2007-2008, he was on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley where he was the Warren E. and Carol Spieker Professor of Leadership.  Additional information on Professor Uzzi may be found here: