May 27, 2022

Research Article: “The Emergent Integrated Network Structure of Scientific Research”

The following article was published online today by PLoS ONE.


Emergent Integrated Network Structure Of Scientific Research


Jordan D. Dworkin
University of Pennsylvania

Russell T. Shinohara
University of Pennsylvania

Danielle S. Bassett
University of Pennsylvania


PLoS ONE 14(4): e0216146
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216146


Scientific research is often thought of as being conducted by individuals and small teams striving for disciplinary advances. Yet as a whole, this endeavor more closely resembles a complex and integrated system of people, papers, and ideas. Studies of co-authorship and citation networks have revealed important structural properties of researchers and articles, but currently the structure of scientific ideas themselves is not well understood. In this study, we posit that topic networks may be a useful framework for revealing the nature of conceptual relationships.

Using this framework, we map the landscape of interconnected research topics covered in the multidisciplinary journal PNAS since 2000, constructing networks in which nodes represent topics of study and edges give the extent to which topics occur in the same papers. The network displays small-world architecture, characterized by regions of dense local connectivity with sparse connectivity between them. In this network, dense local connectivity additionally gives rise to distinct clusters of related topics. Yet notably, these clusters tend not to align with assigned article classifications, and instead contain topics from various disciplines.

Using a temporal graph, we find that small-worldness has increased over time, suggesting growing efficiency and integration of ideas. Finally, we define two measures of interdisciplinarity, one of which is found to be positively associated with PNAS’s impact factor. Broadly, this work suggests that complex and dynamic patterns of knowledge emerge from scientific research, and that structures reflecting intellectual integration may be beneficial for obtaining scientific insight.

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Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.