Every now and then I read or re-read a famous, influential paper and realize (or at least suspect strongly) that it did not — at the time it was published — contain any new ideas. My guess is that a paper like this can become highly cited for one or more of the following reasons:
- It popularized an existing idea that was not widely known.
- It was well written, and packaged up existing knowledge in a convenient, pleasing way.
- It provided a good name for a concept that previously lacked one.
This last issue, naming, is the one that fascinates me. Somehow, ideas are not quite real until they are given a label. (An unfortunate side effect is that many researchers have realized this, and assign names to trivial algorithms and silly results.) In the near future I’ll write a detailed post about a paper whose contribution is naming a known technique. In the meantime, I’d love to hear readers’ suggestions about papers like this.
Note that I am not mocking or belittling this kind of paper. On the contrary, the authors of these papers deserve every bit of recognition they get: the timely synthesis, packaging, and naming of existing ideas is a difficult art and most of us would love to be able to pull this off just once or twice in a career.