sleeping beauties in science


I recently discovered this really cool and funky journal with the unfortunate name of scientometrics, which publishes all kinds of cross-disciplinary quantitative studies on science. It is very addictive and I’ve already wasted hours reading through many of their (short and sweet, physical-science-style) papers. One thing that I’ve noticed is that these science research folk love their metaphors, with many “effects” and empirical patterns of citations garnering their own (sometimes funny, sometimes obviously coined by people who speak English as a second language) names. The original inspiration appears to be Robert K. Merton’s coinage of the term Mathew Effect to refer to patterns of cumulative advantage in explaining scientific success, which apparently continues to be (from what I could gather) a vibrant research subfield in scientometrics.

In any case, one of the funniest (and actually thought provoking) of the effects that I found while rummaging through recent issues of the journal, was the “sleeping beauty” effect (or what some other people call the “Mendel Effect”) which refers to the sometimes observed phenomenon of a paper that initially comes out to a chilly reception (“falls asleep”, operationalized by the authors as receiving one or less citations a year), for a “sleeping period” of varied length (5 to 10 years) and then is “awakened by a prince” (for those of you with a clear idea of the patriarchal connotations produced by taking the sleeping beauty story to refer to an empirical effect, please don’t shoot the messenger), or is cited by a recent paper, which then sparks an avalanche of interest in the original citation, thus “awakening” the sleeping beauty (the authors were studying male dominated physical science fields, but I don’t think that they thought through very well the homoerotic implications of a “prince” “awakening a sleeping beauty from her slumber,” when odds are that both papers were written by men). The extent of the awakening is then measured by the number of citations that the paper receives after being kissed (operationalized in various ordinal categories with 60+ being the maximum).

The authors discover that the sleeping beauty effect is an incredibly rare occurrence in science. Out of a database of 20 million papers (1988-1997) with 300 million citations between them, they uncover only one “true” sleeping beauty, defined as a paper that was asleep for 10 years and then received 60+ citations: the well known (not really) “Massive N= 2a supergravity in ten dimensions”” published in Physics Letters B in 1986 (maybe the author should have spiced up the paper with a jazzier title like we do in sociology: Massive or Flaccid?: N=2a supergravity in ten dimensions). The probability of being a sleeping beauty thus follows a steep power law, with the chances of being awakened being a rapidly decaying function of sleep time (they even write down a “sleeping beauty equation” with the power law exponents estimated from the data). They note, that like Mendel’s genetics, sleeping beauty papers are “ahead of their time,” and therefore their true genius is not discovered until after the “times” or the paradigms have changed. This particular paper for instance, dealt with string theory when it was still not “all the rage” in Physics. There is a network story in the whole thing, since the awakening “Prince” happened to be a younger physicist who happened to work in the lab as the original author at UCSB.

This got me to thinking: are there any sleeping beauties in org theory or sociology? And then I remembered that there is indeed one, even more dramatic case than the one talked about by the scientometrics guys: as recounted by Jerry Jacobs in his “ASR’s greatest hits” and the web supplement “Further Reflections on…” (page 9, table 3) the sociological sleeping beauty is none other than Stewart Macaulay‘s (now classic) 1963 paper entitled “Non-Contractual Relations in Business: A Preliminary Study.” A pretty neat paper, which fell into deaf ears for the first 10 years of its existence (garnering a grand total of 4 citations), but which has been cited 360 times the last 10 years alone.

The question becomes: who laid the big smooch? This one is easy to answer: there is absolutely no question that the top Prince in this case was Mark Granovetter (although there were surely others since the paper had already “awoken” by 1985 [my own rumage through JSTOR suggests Jeffrey Pfeffer (1972) as a possible early Prince], but it went into caffeinated insomnia after Granovetter), who cited the paper in his 1985 AJS classic. Thus, Macaulay’s “visionary” piece was awakened by the new economic sociology and modern (open systems) institutional theory, with the turn toward thinking of economic activity as relationally embedded.

Written by Omar

July 22, 2006 at 7:21 pm

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