What is the difference in meaning between "seminal" and "path-breaking" in the scientific research ?
Merriam-Webster gives two sences of "seminal":
- 1 of, relating to, or consisting of seed or semen
- 2 containing or contributing the seeds of later development : creative, original * "Path-breaking" is perfectly valid English, the comment by user Maths Barry to the contrary notwithstanding. However, its meaning is somewhat different.
- Collins gives as a definition for "path-breaking":
very original; ground-breaking; The report was itself a path-breaking study of that subject.
completely different and new and affecting the way in which things are done or considered in the future; May's path-breaking essay 'The Recovery of American Religious History' was published in the American Historical Review in 1964.
*This was a path-breaking and influential work, which remains a basic reference for historians of psychoanalysis today.
- The Free Dictionary lists "path-breaking" as an idiom, and defines it as:
Novel, innovative, and unprecedented;
establishing a new standard for the future.
The narration in this novel is truly path-breaking—I've never read anything like it!
We've had some really path-breaking legislation this year that will influence the laws in this nation for decades to come.
The word "seminal" is generally used for a work, creation, or event that is the seed of future events or developments, and was highly influential. It suggests a starting point. It is thus most often used of events that occurred long enough ago that one can see what grew from them, or else as a prediction that something significant will grow from a recent starting point.
"Path-breaking" suggests a person or work that leads the way, but possibly is not the actual beginning of a trend or line of thought, rather something that developed and pushed ahead some set of developments.
Personally, I prefer to avoid the use of "seminal" (except in reference to male seminal fluid or seminal anatomy). Because it is so closely related to an exclusively male biological concept, it often unintentionally promotes the idea that new, creative developments are a primarily male province. This can make it feel ironic when the creator was in fact female. In place of
X was a seminal work on Y.
I might use such forms as:
- X was a highly original work, which gave rise to a new line of thought on Y.
- X started a new sequence of development on Y.
However, all this is merely a personal preference, or at most a matter of style. The word "seminal" remains perfectly natural, particularly in formal academic usage, where it is not uncommon.