The term ‘national innovation systems’ surfaced for the first time in print during the late 1980s and, in the years that followed, several important contributions on this topic appeared. This paper investigates the role that this new literature plays within innovation studies and the world of science more generally and discusses the sources for its emergence. With the help of expert assessments, the three most important contributions to the ‘national innovation systems’ literature are identified. Then the citations to these works in scholarly journals in the Web of Science are presented and the characteristics of the ‘national innovation systems’ literature, as compared with other areas of research, are analyzed.