Shorter Distances between Papers over Time are Due to More Cross-Field References and Increased Citation Rate to Higher Impact Papers
The exponential increase in the number of scientific publications raises the question of whether the sciences are expanding into a fractured structure, making cross-field communication difficult. On the other hand, scientists may be motivated to learn extensively across fields to enhance their innovative capacity, and this may offset the negative effects of fragmentation. Through an investigation of the distances within and clustering of cross-sectional citation networks, this study presents evidence that fields of science become more integrated over time. The average citation distance between papers published in the same year decreased from approximately 5.33 to 3.18 steps between 1950 and 2018. This observation is attributed to the growth of cross-field communication throughout the entire period as well as the growing importance of high impact papers to bridge networks in the same year. Three empirical findings support this conclusion. First, distances decreased between almost all disciplines throughout the time period. Second, inequality in the number of citations received by papers increased, and as a consequence the shortest paths in the network depend more on high impact papers later in the period. Third, the dispersion of connections between fields increased continually. Moreover, these changes did not entail a lower level of clustering of citations. Both within- and cross-field citations show a similar rate of slowly growing clustering values in all years. The latter findings suggest that domain spanning scholarly communication is partly enabled by new fields that connect disciplines.