Discovery and information use patterns of Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine

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Balcom, Karen Suzanne

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This investigation identifies and formalizes patterns of discovery among Nobel Laureates in physiology or medicine. The main hypothesis is that discovery patterns are characterized by the gradual acquisition of critical, unorganized masses of findings that, when abstracted and ordered, produce a discovery outcome. Discoveries tend to consist of approximately seven plus or minus two basic components, which reflect the cognitive limits of short-term or working memory. The second hypothesis is that critical research incidents, such as unanticipated problems or flashes of insight, affect individual research progress. The third hypothesis is that Laureate physicians employ clinical problemsolving heuristics to guide their research. Content analysis of 20 Nobel Laureate autobiographical research accounts and statistical analysis of 62 accounts, all published by the Nobel Foundation between 1901 and 1990, were performed. A systems model emerged early in the analysis as a dominant feature of discovery, and clearly suggested the use of General Systems Theory ontology (Miller, J. G., Living Systems) to formalize the nature of the discoveries and demonstrate the important role of human short-term memory limitations in knowledge synthesis. A subsample analysis of five early and five recent Laureate discoveries describes subsystems that closely match Miller’s systems template. Further analysis of 62 Laureate discovery accounts reveals an average of seven sections per account (Mean=7.1; SD=2.84; CI=95%), while a t-test reveals no significant difference between an actual mean of 7.1 and a hypothetical mean of 7.0 (t=0.2685; df=61 and Mean=7.1; DF=2.84; CI=95%). The General Systems discovery ontology, with its eight to ten unique subsystems, also reflects short-term memory limitations of seven plus two chunks and helps to explain past discovery patterns. The analysis supports the first hypothesis but only partially supports the second and third hypotheses. Laureates relied on systems models to conduct their research and represent their discoveries. Critical incidents and clinical problem-solving heuristics played a relatively minor role in progress toward discovery. The General Systems ontology could be developed into a “discovery template” to support future discovery efforts.