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For tracking the influence and progression of ideas and advances, one tool that has proved to be invaluable is citation analysis – quantifying and examining the previous works that a given scientific paper cites, as well as the works that subsequently cite that paper. But papers are not the only documents that provide insights into influence and impact. Patents, which also constitute a kind of intellectual statement, and which can also earn increased visibility and acclaim in the form of citations, supply their own view into the process of innovation.

Economist Gaétan de Rassenfosse, based at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, has studied patent literature since his days as a doctoral student at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. “My PhD supervisor was Bruno van Pottelsberghe, who was then the Chief Economist of the European Patent Office (EPO), he says. “I started the first year of my PhD at the EPO in Munich and naturally started working with patent data. I was impressed by the sheer volume of information provided by patent data and how they could be used in creative ways to answer key questions on the economics of innovation.”

In a 2017 report, de Rassenfosse and coauthor Adam Jaffe review the use of patent citation data in social science research (A.B Jaffe, G. de Rassenfosse, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 68: 1360–74, 2017; doi:10.1002/asi.2373). The authors discuss patent citations as “an indicator of knowledge flow” as well as their function as “links in knowledge or innovation networks.”

For de Rassenfosse, the vantage point provided by patent data is indispensable. “They offer a window on the innovation process,” he says. “You can track knowledge flows or knowledge spillovers – how ideas flow from one person to another or one region to another, or one industry to another.”

As tracked in the Clarivate Analytics Web of Science, de Rassenfosse’s most-cited paper, coauthored with van Pottelsberghe, examines the relationship between patents and R&D (G. de Rassenfosse, B.van Pottelsberghe de la Potterie, Research Policy, 38 [5]: 779-92, 2009; 39 citations to date). The authors note that several forms of policy instruments, including those pertaining to education, intellectual property, and science and technology, have a substantial effect on the interplay between R&D and patents.

Other reports among de Rassenfosse’s most cited include a new patent-based method for gauging worldwide inventive activity (G. de Rassenfosse, et al., Research Policy, 42 [3]: 720-37, 2013; 34 citations in Web of Science] and an examination of how small- and medium-sized enterprises are motivated to patent and how these motives affect their ability to monetize intellectual property (G. de Rassenfosse, Small Business Economics, 39 [2]: 437-52, 2012; 18 citations to date).

Gaétan de Rassenfosse 

Monetizing patents

On the subject of motivation, de Rassenfosse has noted a change in recent years in the reasons for which institutions file patents. Along with the traditional motives of protecting against imitation, signaling quality, and ensuring freedom to operate, companies are increasingly filing patents for what he calls the “exchange motive.”

“These are various ways of monetizing patents,” he says. “One way is simply to sell the patent. Another is to keep it while using it to generate licensing or cross-licensing revenue, or to use it as collateral. This exchange motive is gaining in importance, particularly given the development of markets for technology and specialized innovation suppliers.

“I think that’s really what has been changing over the last couple of years. More and more, the act of inventing is being broken down into layers. So, you have university spin-offs that develop core technology, which is then transferred to a bigger player that has the means to carry on the research. Here, patents really act as a way of transferring the technology from one player to another, which I think is really a defining feature of modern innovation practices.”

In addition to his work on patents, de Rassenfosse has also examined scientific publications as indexed in the Web of Science. In one project, the aim was to track the extent to which researchers, over time, either tend to stay close to their area of specialization or gravitate toward new fields – and to evaluate the impact of such decisions. The matter is familiar to de Rassenfosse, who notes that, as a young scholar, he has found himself wondering if his next publication should be in his core research area (i.e., with a view to becoming a specialist), or at the periphery of his subject field (to work towards being a generalist).

To investigate this phenomenon, de Rassenfosse and colleagues turned to the Web of Science to scrutinize the publication and citation records of approximately 30,000 biomedical researchers. They quantified the degree of specialization of the scientists for a series of years, studying the citations received by their papers. Results indicated that researchers who worked toward becoming specialists received a significantly greater number of citations per paper, particularly early in their careers.

Along with his conventional scholarly work, de Rassenfosse has turned to other media to elucidate the world of patents and IP. A series of cartoon-based slides, for example, explains how patents can be used to finance innovation. He has also produced a freely available comic book to popularize key concepts in IP. (More information and materials are also available at de Rassenfosse’s website and Twitter handle, @gderasse.)

Patents and products

In their 2017 report mentioned earlier, de Rassenfosse and Jaffe acknowledge a steep rise in the use of patent-citation data in social sciences in the last two decades, facilitated by the digitization of data and increasing computer power. Among the exciting developments in the field, they note, is the application of network theory and analysis tools to the world of patent citations.

The authors also acknowledge the complexity of the research. As they observe, “Researchers realize that the patent citation generation process is complex but more work needs to be done to understand it. The complexity of the patent citation generation process is a blessing and a curse. Whereas it may distort the reality in an undesirable fashion, it may also provide a window into the incentives faced by inventors, patent attorneys and examiners and serve as a source of econometric identification.”

In his own ongoing work on patents, de Rassenfosse’s next large-scale projects include an initiative known as IPRoduct, an effort to link innovative goods sold in the U.S. economy to the patents upon which they are based. Describing this project, which aims to follow the trail from innovation to the consumer, de Rassenfosse notes that “establishing a concordance between products and patents has been the holy grail of innovation research. It will unlock many questions in the economics and management of innovation.”

Clarivate patent resources

Clarivate Analytics offers a range of resources for patent searching and the management and protection of intellectual property. Derwent Innovation, a suite of resources that includes Derwent World Patents Index and Derwent Patents Citation Index, eases searching of IP data reflecting more than 50 patent authorities worldwide, including invention-level views of patent and literature citations, forward and backward in time. Advanced tools make it easy to retrieve, analyze, and share the required data.

For more about Derwent Innovation, please click here.