Reconstructing the cancer stem cell revolution with data and analytics

Reflecting on the growth of this field at the 9th International Heinrich F. C. Behr Symposium


Research on stem cells and stem cells in cancer is one of the most innovative, productive and medically promising scientific topics worldwide. According to an Elsevier report on stem cell research, it’s growing twice as fast as the world average research. Over the last 25 years, there has been an exponential growth in journal articles on stem cells. Great expectations are placed on this very active and diverse research area because stem cell-based therapies promise potential cures for some of the most serious medical conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and more.

Therefore, scientists around the world are working very hard to investigate the molecular mechanisms that govern stemness and those determining the distinct differentiation processes of stem cells, bringing hope to people suffering from terminal illnesses.

An established landmark in the global conference calendar of stem cell- and cancer stem cell scientists is the International Heinrich F. C. Behr Symposium in Heidelberg, Germany. Regularly hosted at the German National Research Center (DKFZ), the 9th symposium, held on September 18 to 20, was once again dedicated to Stem Cells and Cancer, and organized by Dr. Andreas Trumpp, Professor in the DKFZ Division of Stem Cells and Cancer and Director of HiStem, and the DKFZ Chairman Prof. Michael Boutros. As in previous years, this conference attracted an impressive list of internationally renowned speakers, many who have attended this meeting regularly since its inception 12 years ago.

About 350 scientists from all career levels discussed their most recent results on a wide range of topics, including:

  • Blood stem cells and leukemias
  • Epithelial stem cells
  • Cellular heterogeneity and single cell technologies
  • Liquid biopsy

Andrew Plume, PhD, presents an analysis of the stem cell research on cancer.Acknowledging the timeliness and pace in stem cell and cancer stem cell research, Dr. Andrew Plume, Director of Market Intelligence at Elsevier, addressed the 300+ active scientists, among them some of the founders and globally recognized leaders in this field, with a publisher’s perspective on the evolution of stem cell and cancer research. Andrew’s unbiased and objective analytical data faithfully recapitulated the emergence, proliferation and current trends in the cancer and stem cell literature. Based on Scopus data, Andrew’s bibliometric meta-analyses captured the groundbreaking publications which kicked off the field of (human) embryonic stem cell research between 1998 and 2003.

A second peak in citations identified the landmark studies reporting on induced pluripotency in 2006-07, which were rapidly recognized in 2012 when half the Nobel Prize was awarded to Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, and established the base for an exponential growth and strong clinical direction of stem cell research.

The second peak in citations is for the landmark papers reporting on induced pluripotency in 2006-07, which were rapidly recognized in 2012 when half the Nobel Prize was awarded to Dr. Shinya Yamanaka.

Further, the presented publication and citation patterns emphasized the substantial impact and repercussions stem cell research has had on adjacent fields such as cancer research, immunology, neuroscience, developmental biology, epigenetics, reproductive and regenerative medicine. Intriguingly, Andrew was able to contrast the exponential growth in the stem cell-related literature with only linear growth in research funding, a trend that might soon constrain less innovative or productive labs.

Research funding for stem cell research has experienced linear growth in contrast to the exponential growth in the field. (Source: NIH Estimates of Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories, RCDC)

Finally, the bibliometric data very strongly argue that collaborative research is more often cited/translates into broader visibility and impact.

What lessons to learn from putting Scopus to the test on the topic of Stem Cells and Cancer? Research analytical tools, such as Scopus and SciVal empower knowledge with regard to publication output, level of collaboration and economical impact in any research field. However, they mostly do this retrospectively, as disruptive observations are naturally hard to plan and/or predict. Nevertheless, they can be of significant value for society, as for instance to inform on the maturity of any given scientific field, indicate research becoming repetitive and ineffective, with the risk to waste societal resources, rather than to advance knowledge, and eventually collapse.

Hence, research analytics data, from trusted sources and responsibly interpreted, provide research funders and society at large with valuable insights to more effectively distribute limited research funds. Scientists and institutions, on the other hand, can hugely benefit by objectively placing their individual performances into a global framework to recognize potential (academic or corporate) partners for collaboration and identify research gaps to focus further investigations. Thus, research analytics, a big-data driven, scientific approach to publication-, citation- and download pattern with a global perspective, can generate significant societal impact: be it by accelerating collaborations towards new and effective treatments or to funnel limited resources to unexplored new ventures to support unpredicted breakthroughs and fundamental discoveries in all scientific disciplines.

Read Andrew Plume's presentation

With extensive data and objective analysis, Dr. Plume illustrated the emergence and proliferation of cancer- and stem cell literature along with current trends. You can view his presentation here.

Evolution of the stem cells and cancer publishing landscape (Source: Andrew Plume)

What participants said

These comments are from informal discussions at the conference with the promise to protect the privacy of respondees. They are not exact quotes but recollections to capture the essence of the provided feedback.

  • Your bibliometric pattern remind me of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, characterized by Thomas S. Kuhn. I wonder whether publisher and scientists should jointly invest more energy to identify and foster disruptive studies which help us to brake dogmas. These tend to be ignored too often, slowing true scientific advance and creating costly research waste. — Institute director, USA
  • These seemingly thorough and ‘big-data’ based reports would be of high value if you could really predict future breakthroughs. — Institute director, Germany
  • With this kind of reporting being retrospective, I as an active scientist do not see how bibliometric data would foster exploratory unbiased and creative research. — Group leader, European-based laboratory
  • It is good to see that such analyses are done accurately and based on the most-correct data. On the other hand, I find it daunting how much we researchers already rely on ‘metrics’ to assess ‘impact’ and decide on funding. I also fear that even more young talents might quickly disappear in the industry when academic merits are solely measured by numbers/citations. — Deputy-head, European-based institute

Why is Scopus used for analysis?

Scopus is the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature: scientific journals, books and conference proceedings. It gives a comprehensive overview of the world's research output in the fields of science, technology, medicine, social sciences, and arts and humanities, and it has smart tools to track, analyze and visualize research.

Since its inception in 2004, Scopus’s constant development has yielded one of the most accurate and objective sources to capture global research outputs; citations; downloads; and academic-corporate collaborations, patents and patent citations. As a result, Scopus data is behind many reputed international rankings (including Times Higher Education reports). It’s used by governments around the world to make decisions about research funding. And it’s used for Elsevier’s collaborative reports, which topics that include the competitiveness of the UK research base, comparing the innovative capabilities of 10 European capitals and objectively addressing gender disparity in the German research arena.


Written by

Thomas Schwarz-Romond, PhD, MBA

Written by

Thomas Schwarz-Romond, PhD, MBA

Dr. Thomas Schwarz-Romond serves as Executive Publisher - Journals in Elsevier’s Berlin office. During his PhD and postdoctoral research, Thomas investigated the molecular and structural mechanisms of Wnt-signaling at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC-Berlin) and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB Cambridge). From 2006 to 2015, he worked as Scientific Editor for The EMBO Journal. He acquired managerial skills during an MBA leadership program and joined Elsevier in April 2015.


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