Research Fronts 2016: The Hottest Areas in Science

Given the speed at which science progresses, a perennial challenge for observers is keeping track of how areas of specialized research arise and evolve. How can one hope to follow the constant process by which existing fields grow and expand, as new specialty areas spring up and diverge from existing subfields, even while some older research threads seemingly disappear or are subsumed by more recent advances? How to identify and specify emergent and fast-moving areas?

One strategy for staying current with this ever-changing landscape might be to rely on human analysis to identify particularly active and emergent fields. Unfortunately, the constant, unmanageable torrent of worldwide scientific output weighs against this approach.

Another, sounder strategy is to let scientists themselves serve as guides. When researchers cite one another’s papers – acknowledging previous work that they judge to be of particular usefulness and significance – they create a sprawling but navigable network of cognitive connections, creating linkages between related material. This tested and reliable dynamic is at the heart of the “research fronts” compiled from citation data in the Web of Science™ from Clarivate Analytics.

For the fourth consecutive year, in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Clarivate Analytics is releasing a new annual roundup, Research Fronts 2016, compiling 100 of the hottest specialty areas in the sciences and social sciences, as well as 80 emerging fields in which knowledge is accumulating at a particularly rapid clip.

Along with listing these fronts, the report includes expanded discussion of selected areas, along with specifics on the institutions and countries whose researchers have been particularly active in providing a foundation for the given research, as well as in carrying the work forward.

At The Forefront

As identified via automated analysis of millions of citations in the Web of Science, research fronts form when a foundational group of “core” papers is frequently cited together by later papers. This frequent “co-citation” of the core indicates a basic commonality acknowledged by the citing authors – perhaps a similar material or phenomenon being investigated, a similar experimental or conceptual approach, or some other related aspect. The point is that the connection is formed organically by the judgment and actions of the scientists themselves, as opposed to a subjective act of designation by an observer.

Together, the foundational core papers and the subsequent papers that cite the core make up a research front. Each front’s various characteristics – how many core papers, their average year of publication, their combined tally of citations – provide insights into the dimensions and currency of the given front.

For the new report, analysts from the Institutes of Science and Development of the Chinese Academy of Sciences examined more than 12,000 research fronts reflecting the years 2009 to 2015, compiled for Essential Science Indicators, the Clarivate Analytics database and benchmarking tool. From the 21 main fields listed in Essential Science Indicators, the fronts were classified into 10 broad areas.

To identify the hottest fronts, analysts weighed a combination of each front’s citation total as well as the mean year of its core papers, with priority given to fronts with predominantly recent core literature. Extracting 10 fields from each main specialty area produced 100 fronts in all. Analysts also produced a cohort of emerging areas by restricting the selection to fronts whose core literature dated from the second of half of 2014 and onward, with citations providing the second criterion. By this method, 80 emerging fronts were specified – fronts in which the recent foundational literature signals a rapidly developing area of knowledge. (Note: the report contains a detailed chapter on the methodology by which the fronts were selected.)

Front and Center

Not surprisingly, the combined total of 180 hot and emerging research fronts represents a broad diversity of research topics. In the biological sciences, for example, fronts devoted to immune-system function center on the development and differentiation of macrophages and T-cells. In medicine, different approaches to cancer immunotherapy are highlighted. In chemistry/materials, the materials known as perovskites come under scrutiny not only for their established use in solar cells but for newer application in LEDs, detectors, and other devices. In the area of mathematics, computer science and engineering, research on the technology and implications of the Internet of Things achieves prominence. And in environmental and ecological sciences, research fronts reflect new findings on the challenges posed by microplastic pollution, insecticides, and biodiversity loss.

The analysis also specifies the institutions in each highlighted front that are most prolific in production of core papers, as well as those whose research is most prominent in the citing papers that draw upon the core in expanding and extending the research. A summary section also examines national performance in the fronts, specifying the representation of the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and other standout countries.

To download the full report, please click here.