Is Science becoming more novel?

More novel, of course, doesn’t make sense. Novel is binary. But, let’s take a look to see if the word “novel” is being used to describe science more frequently. In the 1980s less than 1% of articles used novel as an emphasis word in the title or abstract, whereas now we are above 8%.

This graph was generated from all PubMed-indexed articles that used novel in either their title or abstract, then plotted as percentage of all articles published in that year.


OK, we have a clear trend. Does that mean that science is becoming “more novel”, is there more “new” work going on? I don’t think so. Let’s have a look at some of the reasons behind the change.

Hypothesis 1 : evolving language

When I looked at those data, I wondered if the increased use of novel was reflecting a change in word usage. Perhaps, people were using novel instead of using new? These two words do have distinct meanings, but perhaps those distinctions have become blurred?

However, new is going up too:

There is a bit of shift though, those lines aren’t quite parallel. If we look at the ratio of articles using novel to those containing new, the novel to new index (trademark pending), we can see that “novel” is increasing at a faster rate.

Or maybe things really just are more novel than they used to be.

There are >321,000 articles all-time containing both new and novel in their title+abstract; ~10% of all the “new” articles (>3.0 million), and ~20% of all the “novel” articles (>1.6 million).

One shift in meaning could be that “novel” is being used as shorthand for “newly X” where X is discovered, described, identified, isolated. If we generate the novel to newly index, it certainly supports changing word usage in this specific area. Whereas in the early 80s, it was roughly parity between novel and newly discovered, now we are at about 6x more likely to find novel being used. However, even in the 80s, “newly” only accounted for a small proportion of the total publications and so this specific word choice change isn’t likely to be the whole story.

Hypothesis 2 : using novel for virtue signalling

Let’s face it; most papers describe “new” work.

One assumption that we can reasonably confident about, is that the papers being published now are as least as likely to be primary data reporting new findings as papers published in the 80s and 90s. Indeed, the explosion of -omics and other big data sets + clinical meta-analyses and systematic reviews makes me think that actually a greater proportion of research is likely to be secondary now.

We all (should) know that merely being novel isn’t sufficient to make research “good”. Value comes from what the findings are rather than whether anyone else has found them before. However, the desire to differentiate and perhaps underscore the distinction between the new findings and the old could be leading to increased use of novel as a form of value signal.

Before we go on we should ask whether it works – does saying novel increase engagement? The graph below looks at reads and citations from the ~1000 papers published in 2019 across 6 Ophthalmology journals (for this analysis we used just the titles rather than title+abstract).

Emphasising newness in the title doesn’t seem to have any major positive effect on outcomes. Although it might make a difference during peer review.

Taking this hypothesis further led me down a little path of thinking about prestige and value signals. My thoughts went like this: (in general), the more exciting the findings, the less the need to explicitly flag “novelty” as part of the work. Of course, that doesn’t hold true for everything but we’ll come back to that shortly.

Based on good papers need less selling, my hypothesis evolved to wondering if stressing the novelty would occur less frequently in the prestige journals. Papers published in the big journals are already selected for their perceived value AND timeliness. If it is published in Nature, you already know it will be new or novel.

So, I had a look… and it looked promising; here is novel usage in some big journal compared with overall trend:

It definitely seemed that the prevalence of “novel” in these journals was less than the overall trend. However, when I added “Cell” into the mix, it was less clear! There was a point in the late 90s when 1 in 5 articles in Cell was emphasising novelty. Cell is undoubtedly a prestige journal…


The other way to think about the same concept is to consider situations when authors might feel they need to work harder to “sell” the work.

So, I considered next the mega journals. These journals have been on the rise and publish tens of thousands of papers each year. For journals like PLOS One and Scientific Reports, the remit of the editor and reviewers is not to consider perceived impact when making a decision; true impact is decided after publication. This means it falls to the reader to decide if the work is important. Of course, to have this post-publication impact, these papers do still need to compete with the high impact papers to be read. Perhaps more virtue signalling is needed? This seems to be somewhat true, especially when those journals first launch:

Hypothesis 3: field specific differences

Continuing down this rabbit hole, I started thinking about situations where using “novel” is appropriate, and whether relative growth in those fields could be contributing to the language change.

My PhD was in genetics, so I started there. There are lots of genetics papers describing case reports of mutations or loci associated with disease/traits/susceptibility. Usually the first identification makes a splash but the follow ups do still add value especially when there are genotype/phenotype correlations. When the follow-up mutations are in the same gene as previously associated with the condition but are not the same change then the term “novel” gets used a lot as a synonym for “not previously described”.

Here novel isn’t really a virtue signal but rather a useful piece of information; it tells the reader that this additional case adds new knowledge rather than being validation/triangulation of previous results in a different cohort. Both the novel and the validation papers have value but are likely to be of interest to different readers.

I did a quick search for “novel mutation” in the same timeframes and it never reached more than 600 papers per year (under 1% of all the papers with novel). However, that’s just one phrase and field-specific differences would likely be better reflected by looking at field-specific journals. A quick look at some of the bigger Genetics journals and this concept seems to hold true. Nature Genetics being a bit of an outlier again, possibly for the prestige reason above.

Another area that sprung to mind as potentially growing and where novelty is definitely part of story is bioengineering/biomaterials. The threshold for where a new substrate is derivative of a previous one versus completely “novel” feels (to me, an outsider) to be ill-defined, but I can certainly appreciate that claiming that a new material is novel could help to say that the work has added value versus a smaller modification.

Looking at some of the big Materials journals, we again see quite a lot of novelty and apparently this is going up.

You might be thinking; what about “novel coronavirus”? That was big news for awhile! Yes, there were a lot of papers that talked about SARS-CoV-2 as being “novel”; 6,613 of those in 2020. It accounts,for the little bump on the otherwise straight overall graph! Interestingly, or perhaps frustratingly, nearly as many papers were still considering this virus as needing the novel tag in 2021 and there have even some this year. I’m genuinely surprised at this. It leads to the obvious question: if there a time limit of novelty (or should there be?).

Where else is it convention to call something novel? Drop a comment below or on twitter and I’ll update this page

What about the dips

If you’ve been playing along here, you will have noticed that some of the graphs for specific journals have peaks and troughs that do not match the overall flat upwards trend of the whole discipline. Intriguing.

These could be indicative of a specific boom of a certain type of work or methods e.g. lots of transgenics in the 90s, or the human genome project hitting. Or, and this is my preferred option, it could be a sign of the editorial staff / directions having an influence.

On that note, there are some journals where use of novel is curtailed. For example, Physical Review posted this memo in 1997, which is pretty definitive:

Physical Review adheres to the following policy with respect to use of terms such as “new” or “novel:” All material accepted for publication in the Physical Review is expected to contain new results in physics. Phrases such as “new,” “for the first time,” etc., therefore should normally be unnecessary; they are not in keeping with the journal’s scientific style. Furthermore, such phrases could be construed as claims of priority, which the editors cannot assess and hence must rule out.

Of course, I had a quick look… only 9 of the 14,216 papers published in Physical review Part D contain the word novel in their abstract/title. Impressive.

Hypothesis 4: the Currin bandwagon effect

I showed an early draft of this post to my wife and she immediately said “it’s because everyone else is doing it”.

Certainly, we are the products of what we read. When teaching scientific writing, I tell the students to find examples of papers where they felt the message was clear and effective to examine style. It follows that as more papers are emphasising newness then more writers will follow that lead.

Is there too much novelty?

The answer to the changing writing is likely a combination of the four drivers. But, is it a problem?

As you’ve reached this far, it won’t surprise you that I think that novel is overused and the threshold for “novelty” should be higher. Language changes and evolves. Not always for the better. Overuse of one phrase can devalue it. Just look at “awesome” which used to mean, well… awesome, but now is hard to distinguish from good (in the US).

I started down this journey as I had just reviewed a couple of different manuscripts where the use of “novel” felt… well, let’s just say…a stretch. The findings were new, no doubts there, but it felt like an extension of what was already known into a different context.

Whenever we teach people about how to write, we tell them to emphasise value but not to go beyond what the data can support. Here, describing the work as novel felt too far. The thing that frustrated me though, was that the work had value, and that value should have been mapped rather than a spurious emphasis on newness!

My thoughts:

Novelty does not imply good! It is rare that it is the novelty of the work that is the reason it is important.

  • Anything that is an extension of something already known should be at most “new” with some sort of definition of what’s new about it.
  • Novel isn’t a simple synonym for previously unknown.
  • A novel gene, RNA or protein is one that not only didn’t exist in earlier organisms but also whose function is distinct. Very unlikely to find a novel gene/RNA/protein in humans! Much more likely to find one that previously wasn’t known.
  • A new gene or protein should be one that didn’t exist in earlier organisms but perhaps has functions similar to earlier versions.
  • A novel function is one that doesn’t exist elsewhere; whereas a new function implies that whatever is being studied has been looked at before but not for this purpose.

Using novel is not wrong

Of course, opinions change… I contributed to the novelty boom with this paper in 2009. It possibly fits my criteria above but definitely leaning toward previously unknown. Looking back, the difference between the lants and the laminins justified emphasising their novelty but if I was writing it again, I might try to find a different p, less overused, phrase to make that point.

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