Patent vs scientific literature – a comparison

We have had some questions recently from the likes of universities and even come companies about why they should look in the patent literature when assessing inventions,  when they could look in the scientific literature instead.

To me this is a false dichotomy – ideally a diligent searcher would look at both. But putting this aside – how do they compare? To help answer this question, I have prepared the table below:



Scientific literature

Patent literature

Total number of publications

~50 to 60 million.


This is based on an estimate of ‘up to 50 million’ published in 2010, and allowing for growth since there

~93 million  in 51 million families


As at September 2015. They may be more than this, but this figure is based on publications available online

Annual number of publications

(in 2014)

~3 million

~4.4 million in 3.4 million families

Types of disclosures

Scientific papers are published for a variety of reasons. Sometimes these disclose new concepts or inventions, often they contain new data or reviews of old data.

Patents in every case contain inventions, and are published in a form designed to make the scope of the invention easy to understand

Ease of online access

Scientific papers can be more difficult to obtain online, and where available online can require access to paid databases.

There are a number of free and paid online databases that can give full and immediate access to 93 million patent records


(ability to apply a unique identifier to support further analysis)

Scientific papers can have inconsistent bibliographical details, meaning that they can hard to index.

Patents publications have a (more or less) standardised numbering system, meaning that it is possible to fully index them

Commercial relevance

Scientific papers for a whole range of reasons, many of them for non-commercial purposes such as advancing in their academic career.

Patents cost more money to file, and so only tend to be filed for inventions where the inventor or applicant thought at the time there was commercial merit in the invention

Which organisations publish their ideas?

Generally written by staff or students working in research organisations and universities.


Companies may baulk at publishing their best ideas

Companies of all sizes, research organisations, universities and individual inventors.


Even the most secretive of companies can publish plenty of patents, for example the likes of Apple.

Language of publication

Can vary, although English language abstracts of non-English papers can be published


Even where English language abstracts are published, the rest of the paper may only be available in PDF format and machine translation may be difficult

Can vary, although English language abstracts of non-English papers can be published.


In addition the most important patents tend to be published in multiple countries, which can be multiple languages if not originally in English.


The free patent search database Espacenet now includes on-demand machine translation, to/from multiple languages for many of the patents in its database

Publication and filing delay

Can be immediate for self-publications, although peer review can take slow publication


There can also be a delay if the invention is commercialised to allow for patents to be filed first

Generally 18 months from date of filing, although some utility patents are published soon after filing.


Patents are generally filed before the commercialisation of inventions.


Looking at this table,  the benefits of also searching in the patent literature for universities and companies considering new ideas become pretty clear.

A true story can also confirm this point. A patent attorney colleague told me of a university client who had spent three years working on an invention, and had taken it to the  patent attorney to be filed as an new patent.  But a simple patent search quickly revealed knockout prior art, being some patents filed in Japan.

The inventor was upset of course – and also surprised. He recognised the name of the Japanese patent filer, as being a leading academic in a related field. The university inventor was fully across the scientific literature in the specific field he was inventing in, but had not seen anything published by the Japanese academic in this specific field.

The reason why is that the japanese academic had not published any scientific papers in the area of his patents. Instead he had chosen to protect his obviously valuable invention with patents.


Is patent searching difficult?

Patent seaching can be as simple and fast as using Google. In addition Ambercite has developed Cluster Searching, which in a matter of seconds can find similar patents to relevant patents you have already found. Cluster Searching is available for a free and confidential trial – please contact us to arrange a demonstration.


Read More