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Keywords:

  • interdisciplinarity;
  • cybernetics;
  • cluster analysis

Using a large database (∼215,000 records) of relevant articles, we empirically study the complex systems field and its claims to find universal principles applying to systems in general. The study of references shared by the articles allows us to obtain a global point of view on the structure of this highly interdisciplinary field. We show that its overall coherence does not arise from a universal theory, but instead from computational techniques and fruitful adaptations of the idea of self-organization to specific systems. We also find that communication between different disciplines goes through specific “trading zones,” i.e., subcommunities that create an interface around specific tools (a DNA microchip) or concepts (a network).