An easy way to boost a paper's citations
long reference list at the end of a research paper may be the key to
ensuring that it is well cited, according to an analysis of 100 years'
worth of papers published in the journal Science.
The research suggests that scientists who reference the work of
their peers are more likely to find their own work referenced in turn,
and the effect is on the rise, with a single extra reference in an
article now producing, on average, a whole additional citation for the
"There is a ridiculously strong relationship between the number of citations a paper receives and its number of references," Gregory Webster, the psychologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who conducted the research, told Nature. "If you want to get more cited, the answer could be to cite more people."
Although previous research has "suggested or shown" a relationship,
Webster says, he believes that his study is the first to investigate the
phenomenon comprehensively: he has looked at different journals and a
large number of articles over a long timescale.
Webster has also found the effect, although to a lesser extent, in the the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology and Evolution and Human Behavior — both important journals in their fields — with the results for the latter published last year1.
His latest study, presented at the International Society for the
Psychology of Science & Technology conference in Berkeley,
California, on 7 August, gathered data from the Thomson Reuters Web of
Science database for all 53,894 articles and review articles published
in the journal Science between 1901 and 2000.
A plot of the number of references listed in each article against
the number of citations it eventually received reveal that almost half
of the variation in citation rates among the Science
papers can be attributed to the number of references that they include.
And — contrary to what people might predict — the relationship is not
driven by review articles, which could be expected, on average, to be
heavier on references and to garner more citations than standard papers.
The study also looked at how the relationship has changed over time,
finding that it had strengthened more than threefold over the 100-year
"By most metrics it is considered a pretty big effect," says
Webster. "There was a small difference with review articles but, in
fact, it was in the wrong direction. On average, review articles
actually showed less of a relationship than standard articles."
Webster — who now wants to extend the analysis to include Nature
papers, as well as interview scientists about their behaviour — says
there is not yet enough evidence to say for sure that the relationship
is causal. But he thinks that the psychology of working scientists may
see them behave in an almost 'tit-for-tat' way that boosts their
Relationships based on reciprocal altruism may bloom and fade but —
over time — they might be driving the effect, Webster says. "Scientists
are subject to social forces as much as anyone in any other profession."
But others urge caution in interpreting the results. Jonathan Adams,
a bibliometrics expert and director of research evaluation at Thomson
Reuters, says that although the findings are "intriguing" they are "not
surprising". At a global level, he adds, there are increasing levels of
output and therefore referencing, which would, of course, increase gross
Different subjects also have very different citation patterns — and
lumping them together as one doesn't tell you very much. "Basic citation
count must be contextualised against typical rates for the field," says
Webster says it's true that he didn't look at different disciplines —
but that was not what he was interested in. "This study is just looking
at the entire pattern," says Webster, "The research question I was
really interested in is what do things look like in general on average
He says that while he agrees that the scientific enterprise has
expanded over time, it shouldn't necessarily affect the relationship
between citations and references. "They might both increase in tandem
but this effect appears to be independent of that trend."
An easy way to boost a paper's citations : Nature News