Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The citation game

Although "Publish or perish" is more catchy, I believe it should be "Get cited or perish". Why? Because many people (without naming names, we're talking about your promotion committee)also rely on citation data when deciding a scientist's future.

While citations often correlate with other measurements of scientific influence (awards, research grants, etc.) citations are hardly objective, and depend on more factors than someone finding your work useful.

Time-dependent factors: Recent publications are more likely to get cited than older ones.

The Matthew effect: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." The name was given by Merton (1968) who based it upon the Gospel of Matthew:

"For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."
—Matthew 25:29, New Revised Standard Version.

What it means is that the more cited a paper is, the more it will continue to get cited. Works for famous scientists as well.

Field-dependent factors: Your chances for citing go up when you work in a bigger field with more publications and vice-versa.

Journal-dependent factors: Getting published in a high-factor journal doesn't necessarily mean your paper is the best thing since sliced bread, but it means more people are likely to think so. Also, the first paper in a journal usually gets cited more often (I wonder if that's still relevant, given how wide-spread electronic access is these days).

Paper-dependent factors: The frequency of citations for the paper correlates positively with the number of co-authors and the length of the reference list. Cite more, get cited more.
Longer papers get cited more often than shorter ones, simply because they have more content.

Author/reader dependent factors: Developing a good social network with colleagues can get you cited more often.

Availability of publication: Do people have access to your paper? Open Access papers get cited more often (given that many universities' policy regarding paid subscriptions is "NOT", that's hardly surprising).

Technical problems: Errors in the citing of your paper may prevent the citing from counting when a paper's references list is analysed. Another important rule is to pick one form of your name and stick to it (if you're John Smith, don't start being John K. Smith all of a sudden).

Above all, write a good paper (it can't hurt).

An important note: most of the material in this post is from Bornmann and Daniel's excellent review (2008).

Bornmann, L., & Daniel, H. (2008). What do citation counts measure? A review of studies on citing behavior Journal of Documentation, 64 (1), 45-80 DOI: 10.1108/00220410810844150

Eysenbach, G. (2006). Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles PLoS Biology, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040157

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