Scientists and inventors can draw on an ever-expanding literature for the building blocks of tomorrow’s ideas, yet little is known about how combinations of past work are related to future discoveries. Our analysis parameterizes the age distribution of a work’s references and revealed three links between the age of prior knowledge and hit papers and patents. First, works that cite literature with a low mean age and high age variance are in a citation “hotspot”; these works double their likelihood of being in the top 5% or better of citations. Second, the hotspot is nearly universal in all branches of science and technology and is increasingly predictive of a work’s future citation impact. Third, a scientist or inventor is significantly more likely to write a paper in the hotspot when they are coauthoring than whey they are working alone. Our findings are based on all 28,426,345 scientific papers in the Web of Science, 1945–2013, and all 5,382,833 U.S. patents, 1950–2010, and reveal new antecedents of high-impact science and the link between prior literature and tomorrow’s breakthrough ideas.
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