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I watched a lecture answering the question "How did Native Americans arrive in North America?" During the presentation, the presenter put up a slide showing the "5 major scholars" working on answering that question, and which theories each scholar supported.

Were it not for those slides, looking at JSTOR or Google Scholar, I'd be lost to know which papers were written by the top scholars. There are so many scholars studying that question.

Finding names on faculty pages isn't so useful...a professor could work at a small state university, yet be very highly regarded in their field, the leaders aren't all at Ivy League schools.

Starting with a research question or specific subject area, how can I identify who are the major scholars in the area?

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    This doesn't really answer your question so I'll do it as a comment - if I'm looking into a new topic, the first thing i do is a google scholar search for a recent review of the topic. A good review will orient you to the field and ideas and will also cite many good papers
    – JenB
    Jul 13, 2021 at 7:55
  • How do you wish to define 'major scholars'? Some definitions are inherently more quantifiable than others (e.g., it is pretty straightforward to work out who is getting the most citations; but much harder to determine whose views are most respected).
    – avid
    Jul 15, 2021 at 14:59

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Starting with a research question or specific subject area, how can I identify who are the major scholars in the area?

The usual method is to start with some kind of literature search to see who has written books or papers on the subject. This will usually lead you to a number of authors (some of whom may be dead but others who are alive), and you can then start looking them up and reading their university profiles to see how heavily they specialise in that area, and what credentials they have in the area. If you can identify research institutions or journals that specialise in the subject area of interest then you can usually find a list of their personnel (e.g., editors of a journal), and these people would usually be experts in the field. If you can identify important prizes in the field then you can also look at lists of prize winners to try to identify the top experts.

This process is similar to the standard literature review process, insofar as it usually starts with some small leads, which then snowball into bigger leads, and so on, until you get a good overview of the big names in a field and you find out more and more details about their writings and credentials. If you can identify one big name in a field you can also write to that person (assuming it is important enough that you are not wasting their time) to see if they can recommend other experts.

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I'll limit this to those fields for which national and international conferences are an important part of the life of a typical scholar.

Who are the invited and "featured" speakers at large conferences? Usually they will have a long and important place in driving the field in recent (but perhaps not the most recent) years.

If possible, go to several conferences and see who creates "buzz". Who gets asked questions? Who has an "entourage"?

Sometimes, however, the time of the superstars is a bit past. Look, then, to their students and to those who have extended their work. Unfortunately, however, you will come up with a large group. But if a lot of people are looking to learn the current thinking of the wise old folk, they are probably still relevant.

Another way to learn of the up and comers is to see who is given the "best paper" award at a conference. No guarantees, but that might indicate a bright future at the edge.

Caveat: "Field" is pretty nebulous. Math and CS are both highly balkanized, for example. I suspect Physics and some others are too. The specialties and the specialties within specialties have their own superstars. If the specialty is narrow enough, there may be only a few people contributing significant work. The technique here works better for those more widely known than narrowly, unless you can find conferences with a narrow focus.

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When looking for leading scholars in computer science I typically start by (1) looking for leading conferences on the concrete field. After having a set of well recognized conferences I (2) start looking for authors that appear in more than in one edition of the conference. After that just search on Google Scholar or Scopus and confirm if they indeed do research in the topics that you are interested in.

The same process can be used for journals, just check for authors that appear in more than one issue of the journal.

However, this is the way I use to find lead scholars in computer science field, so maybe it does not generalize well for all the research fields. Also, sometimes there is some bias in authors that always submit to the same conferences, so take everything with a grain of salt.

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That brings us to the beauty of quantification. Change everything into numbers. Make them measurable. One among many ways to do this would be checking the index scores, be that h-index or i10-index or some other indicator.

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