Are new green ideas getting harder to find?
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Introduction Research in sustainability science contributes to the transition towards a sustainable society. Alarmed by recent evidence of declining research productivity, this study asks whether new ideas in sustainability science are getting harder to find due to a burden of knowledge. The burden of knowledge hypothesis states that innovation requires increasing input, as more preceding knowledge needs to be processed and remaining problems are increasingly complex. Theory First, the nature of sustainability science is assessed in terms of growth, interdisciplinarity and cumulativeness of knowledge. These indicators yield insights into the maturity, relative autonomy and strength of the paradigm of sustainability science. Second, it is hypothesized that the burden of knowledge causes increasing trends in collaboration, the complexity of new knowledge, the threshold to produce a new piece of knowledge and the threshold for researchers to publish their first article. The burden of knowledge effect is expected to be stronger after establishment of a strong research paradigm. Methods Sustainability science is operationalized as the Web of Science category Green and Sustainable Science and Technology (GSST). Twelve indicators are measured using a set of 117.808 records of articles published in GSST retrieved from the Web of Science. Publicly available data is used for author disambiguation and to compute the age at entry. Results Sustainability science is a rapidly growing field, that is integrating knowledge from an increasing area of scientific landscape. Cumulativeness of knowledge increased at a high rate until 2010 and less steeply thereafter. A linear increase in team size indicates increased collaboration. Longer titles and abstracts together with an increasing number of keywords and pages indicate increasing complexity of new knowledge. The threshold for production of a new piece of knowledge increases, as indicated by the number of references. The threshold for researchers to publish their first article decreases. Discussion The findings suggest that sustainability science should be regarded as an umbrella term and does not seem to develop into an autonomous discipline. Furthermore, it is confirmed that the strength of a knowledge burden relates to cumulativeness of knowledge, adding to the literature on knowledge production. Conclusion Patterns related to a burden of knowledge can be detected in sustainability science, although the effect on individual researchers and quantitative output is limited. Further maturation of the field and refinement of the paradigm is expected to lead to decreasing research productivity on the long term.