Tales of serendipity in highly cited research: An explorative study

Carter Walter Bloch*, Mads P. Sørensen, Mitchell Young

*Corresponding author for this work

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Research and innovation are attributed a growing role in maintaining global competitiveness; in particular, research advances are seen as important catalysts for innovation and growth. However, our understanding is still limited concerning how important research results are achieved. This is particularly the case for the role of serendipity, where discoveries or the path towards them are unexpected. This paper explores through the use of a narrative approach the role of planned and unplanned factors and presents elements for understanding how and when serendipity occurs in highly cited research. In this explorative study, we have interviewed 12 first authors, each of whom has played a key role in a highly cited piece of research. Their own perceptions of how research progressed, key turning points and conditions for the research are important in illustrating what motivates and influences the researchers’ pursuit of new discoveries. The narrative approach, by introducing a temporal element, is both able to characterize the stories behind the advances, including key turning points in achieving research accomplishments, and to analyze cross-cutting themes related to researcher behavior and environment for the research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of the Knowledge Economy
Pages (from-to)1596–1613
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Highly cited research
  • Serendipity
  • Academic freedom
  • Research climate
  • Narratives


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