Many historians see great innovations as emerging from the genius and relentless hard work of individuals, yet attributing innovations to specific individuals is not always straightforward. The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in early work, considered the issue of simultaneous discovery, arguing that science has many examples of several people making highly similar discoveries at nearly the same time. Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent on the telephone just before Elisha Gray. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace simultaneously formulated the concept of natural selection, thereby laying the groundwork for our modern ideas of evolution.
These examples seem to contradict the belief that innovations mostly come from brilliant geniuses working in isolation, and instead suggest that novelty is often the product of the collective environment, with discoveries emerging naturally when enough resources and scholars engage with the problem. Like water filling up a bathtub, once the water exceeds the edge of the bath it floods at numerous parts simultaneously. This perspective argues that innovations occur simultaneously because scholars draw from an increasing collective knowledge pool.
In a new paper, LML External Fellow Hyejin Youn and colleagues explore this idea in the context of advances in evolutionary medicine. They examine the extent to which simultaneous innovations occur and whether such innovations really are independent of one another. The task is complicated, they note, because scholars can influence each other through multiple platforms and channels. Hence, they test for independence by examining whether scholars of simultaneous innovations are connected through collaboration networks, citation behaviour, and geographical proximity, based on a large corpus containing 6, 456 academic papers in the field of evolutionary medicine between 2007 and 2011. They examined whether innovative papers occurring simultaneously were independent from each other by evaluating the citation and co-authorship information gathered from the corpus metadata. The results indicate that 19 out of 22 simultaneous innovative papers do, in fact, occur independently from each other. In particular, co-authors of simultaneous innovative papers were no more geographically concentrated than the co-authors of similar non-innovative papers in the field.
Overall, their analysis suggests that innovative work emerges from a collective knowledge pool, rather than from knowledge circulating in distinct localized collaboration networks. Therefore, new ideas can appear at multiple locations and with geographically dispersed co-authorship networks. These findings support the perspective that simultaneous innovations are the outcome of collective behaviour.
The paper is available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12064-020-00333-3