Serendipity in Science

by   Pyung Nahm, et al.

Serendipity plays an important role in scientific discovery. Indeed, many of the most important breakthroughs, ranging from penicillin to the electric battery, have been made by scientists who were stimulated by a chance exposure to unsought but useful information. However, not all scientists are equally likely to benefit from such serendipitous exposure. Although scholars generally agree that scientists with a prepared mind are most likely to benefit from serendipitous encounters, there is much less consensus over what precisely constitutes a prepared mind, with some research suggesting the importance of openness and others emphasizing the need for deep prior experience in a particular domain. In this paper, we empirically investigate the role of serendipity in science by leveraging a policy change that exogenously shifted the shelving location of journals in university libraries and subsequently exposed scientists to unsought scientific information. Using large-scale data on 2.4 million papers published in 9,750 journals by 520,000 scientists at 115 North American research universities, we find that scientists with greater openness are more likely to benefit from serendipitous encounters. Following the policy change, these scientists tended to cite less familiar and newer work, and ultimately published papers that were more innovative. By contrast, we find little effect on innovativeness for scientists with greater depth of experience, who, in our sample, tended to cite more familiar and older work following the policy change.


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