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Before the internet, especially a few centuries ago, it was quite common to rediscover a work even post-mortem. Some authors were unfortunate and didn't get to see recognition of their contributions.

Sometimes research pauses due to limitations of technology which are broken decades later. For example, a theoretical model that requires a huge amount of data to be processed (a task that may be done today, as done at CERN) to have an actual application, but was proposed a hundred years ago to be dusted off only nowadays.

How often do we get to see some unrecognized work from the past suddenly being rediscovered and exploding in references to it? Do you know of examples from different disciplines?

What would be the different reasons for this phenomenon? Is it usually a technological or a budget barrier that gets in the way, or is it also often a political (sometimes there is an overlap between budget and politics, of course) or a societal barrier, even in the personal sense (think of Faraday and Ramanujan if they weren't given a chance)?

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A classic modern example of this is Horndeski's paper. This 1974 paper describing a certain class of theories deviating from general relativity, went pretty much unnoticed for the first 3 decades of its existence, acquiring no citations at all. Then the paper was rediscovered in 2011 and highlighted in this PRL, and has accumulated over 2300 citations.

The reason? As far as, I know this was a case of nobody taking notice of a paper that was on a niche subject at the time of publication. When interest in the subject picked-up decades later nobody knew there was something to look for (and the author had long left physics to become an artist).

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  • Wow! I wish someone curates a list of such papers. Are there any available tools that may help to identify those?
    – Moon
    Commented Feb 29 at 21:29
  • This suggests a way to find such papers, eg, those that are now heavily cited but received few or no citations in the first years after publication. A related method is the use of a term such as "Blank's Method" in pring. Gregor Mendel's papers don't get cited much but his work was lost and now his name is used frequently. Commented Mar 1 at 15:29
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I think by definition, the answer is "seldom", though I'll assume there are a few examples. But if you are thinking of pre-internet publications the answer is probably even "very seldom" due to the difficult of finding such papers if they are, by definition, obscure.

More likely, in fact, is that the old results will be rediscovered independently at the historical point at which the results become necessary. The new discoverer may have no notion that the work was done previously. Such work is ethical and doesn't imply plagiarism.

Once a rediscovery is published, people may search for earlier instances and they might resurface, in which case citations of the old work might increase, but only if the ideas are significant enough to drive future work. There are a lot of "ifs" involved, leading to the conclusion that such is rare, but not impossible.

I don't have examples of this phenomenon. Perhaps others can supply a few such and perhaps some of them will be significant.

If you go back far enough, lots of obscure publications were lost when libraries were burnt, perhaps in wartime. Such things are lost forever unless rediscovered, as they might be when and if the need arises.

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One example:

The modern geometric interpretation of complex numbers was given by Caspar Wessel (1745-1818), a Norwegian surveyor, in 1797. His work remained virtually unknown until the French translation appeared in 1897.

https://www.cut-the-knot.org/arithmetic/algebra/HistoricalRemarks.shtml

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