Scientists Simplifying Science

How to create and measure innovation?

in That Makes Sense by

“Innovation” is THE buzz-word of today!

Everyone wants to label their companies as innovative, hire innovative people, create processes to induce innovation and be the next big innovator! But how does one really ‘innovate’ and how do we quantify innovation?

Sarah Kaplan, professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto came up with an interesting answer that you might not have expected.

It is generally thought that brain storming with people from diverse knowledge backgrounds is a great way to come up with new ideas. In their paper, Kaplan and colleagues show that while combining different disciplines does lead to novel ideas, there is another equally important way that innovation works. In-depth knowledge in a field is required to understand the anomalies within the field, which can then lead to novel ideas.

“We find that, counter to theories of recombination, patents that originate new topics are more likely to be associated with local search, while economic value is the product of broader recombinations as well as novelty.”

Interestingly, breakthrough innovations were more likely to result from searches within a domain but economic value was a result of novel innovations arising from a combination of diverse ideas. However, such patents were very rare making up only 1% of the dataset.

“Patents that were both novel and had economic value were the most valuable. And that was only about 1% of the total patents.”

At this point, most researchers must be nodding in agreement “I had thought so”. What was the most surprising thing for me, though, was the way they measured “novelty”. In scientific literature as well as the patent world, innovation is measured as a direct function of citations. Even though most of the scientific community has rejected the idea of the journal impact factor as a way to measure the quality of a scientific article, the next best measure employed is the number of citations for the article itself. Thus, a patent or scientific paper that get highly cited is considered superior and thus a breakthrough innovation.

“What we found in our study is, in fact, that most of the patents that do get highly cited are not necessarily novel.”

In this study, the authors used a different metric to examine patents from the field of nanotechnology. A computer science and natural language processing (NLP) method called topic modeling that uses “a bag of words, a body of text, …and it infers from that body of text by the co-location of all the different words, what are the key underlying topics in the data”  was employed to determine if novel ideas were being developed. Interestingly, the patents that had high level of citations were not necessarily novel.

This is an interesting revelation, and something that scientists should also consider while judging the quality of literature. The entire reward system in science is largely based on publications and the feedback from citations. This generates ‘hot’ topics that many scientists work on, read about and cite, thus creating a research bubble. In such an environment, other fields of potential interest have difficulty to gain exposure and citations. Researchers flock towards hot topics, which can hinder the overall progress of science.

This generates ‘hot’ topics that many scientists work on, read about and cite, thus creating a research bubble. In such an environment, other fields of potential interest have difficulty to gain exposure and citations.

Kaplan and her group plan to delve deeper into how innovation works by studying novel ideas in different fields. It would be interesting to see what insights they can bring!


About the author: Czuee has a PhD from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland and Masters from IIT Bombay. She has previously worked at IISc-Monsanto collaboration and as a patent analyst at Evalueserve. Apart from her research on proteins involved in brain signalling and diabetes, she is interested in scientific communication (, entrepreneurship and runs a webcomic (

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