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How to enhance your chances of serendipitous research discoveries

Five approaches that will help researchers prepare for and make the most of serendipitous opportunities

Rachel Herbert's avatar
1 Jun 2022
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Serendipity plays a big part in much scientific discovery - and researchers can increase the chances of it happening

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History shows that the unexpected often arises from events where things didn’t quite go as planned. From Newton’s apple to Fleming’s Petri dish, images of serendipitous research discoveries are ingrained in popular culture. For the layperson, they make scientists just that little bit more human – we all know what it’s like to be lucky, even if few of us ever experience the thrill of making history.

But there is more to serendipity than meets the eye, and serendipity in research can take different forms. For some, it’s a development seemingly occurring through luck or chance, but for others it is seen to rely on some shrewdness or perceptiveness to ensure that opportunities are realised.

Mapping serendipity

If we want to enhance serendipity, we need to understand it. And the past few years have seen an increasing number of researchers attempt to do just that.

Ohid Yaqub, senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, identified four separate types of serendipity, categorised by the nature of the research that led to the discovery (targeted or untargeted) and how soon the discovery had a practical application (immediately or later). Others, such as the Serendipity Society’s co-founder Lori McCay-Peet, and fellow researcher Elaine Toms, have attempted to chart the various stages involved in a serendipitous discovery, from the initial “trigger”, or information encounter, to the outcome.

Serendipity is also believed to be cyclical. When serendipitous opportunities are missed, these experiences incubate in the observer’s mind, becoming part of the conditions that allow them to perceive the next trigger they encounter.

Making your own luck – the serendipity psyche

While difficult to measure, there is a rising interest in the role that serendipity plays in scientific discovery. It has been linked to research excellence and breakthroughs in every field. Many Nobel prizewinners are quick to emphasise the role of serendipity in their achievements. Some observers estimate that it is behind up to 50 per cent of scientific discoveries.

As recognition of the value of serendipity in research continues to grow, many institutions are considering how they can create an environment in which it can flourish. And with studies suggesting that serendipity is itself a process, it makes sense that optimising that process will increase the likelihood of a serendipitous event. This thinking is informing the design of tools, buildings, experiments and more. But what steps can researchers themselves take to optimise serendipitous discovery?

Five tips for boosting serendipitous research discoveries

1. Prepare your mind

As Louis Pasteur famously claimed back in 1854: “…in the fields of observation, chance favours only the mind which is prepared”. For many, this concept of the prepared mind is the cornerstone of serendipity. Those who are energetic, motivated and positive tend to be more receptive to incidental information acquisition. Researchers who have studied personalities and serendipity believe that it is possible to increase your sensitivity to serendipity. Become comfortable with plans going awry and let go of rigid plans – be open to and try to come up with different perspectives.

2. Collaborate with researchers from other disciplines

No single observer, however attentive and lateral-minded, will pick up on every opportunity. The chances of serendipitous discoveries are boosted when teams are cognitively diverse. So try to work with researchers in adjacent or even quite different subject areas. Or find ways to present your work to an audience with a variety of expertise. Be receptive to doubts and critiques: they may lead you somewhere unexpected yet still rewarding. And try attending conferences or events outside your discipline.

3. Employ tools available to create casual collisions

Attending social events such as pub quizzes and hangouts on Zoom gives you the chance to make new connections and have surprising conversations. Some workplaces have created online drop-in lounges where employees can mingle throughout the day and break off for private conversations. Increasingly, virtual spaces are supporting the kind of chance meetings that physical office spaces offer. For example, Airmeet is a new platform designed just for speed networking, while Spark Collaboration pairs up employees who don’t already know one another for “office video chat roulettes”.

4. Embrace failure

Progress can emerge from failures – indeed, there are many infamous discoveries in research that resulted from mistakes. History encourages us to make room for errors: if your environment allows, admit to them, publish them and even celebrate them. Understanding why something went wrong can lead to new approaches. Failure might have a negative connotation, but it is a part of life. Follow in the steps of Wageningen University & Research and consider “masterful failures” that can be learned from.

5. Psychological safety

For many studying serendipity in research, “psychological safety” is critical: the idea that you can contribute ideas or make mistakes without being judged. Yet it’s last in this list because it’s important to recognise that there are many factors that influence the psychological safety of a team or individual: no one person can control this. When in place, this safety enables researchers to try new ideas, share failures and pursue the results of accidents – all of which boost the chances of serendipitous discoveries in research.

Rachel Herbert is a senior research evaluation manager, working within the International Center for the Study of Research, at Elsevier.

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To read more and discover ways in which a research institution could boost serendipitous discovery, read the report from the International Center for the Study of Research at Elsevier, “Tales of the Unexpected: Designing for Serendipity in Research”.

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