What does the life cycle of a scientific paper look like?
It stands to reason that after a paper is published, people download and read the paper and then if it generates sufficient interest, it will begin to be cited. At some point these citations will peak and the interest will die away as the work gets superseded or the field moves on. So each paper has a useful lifespan. When does the average paper start to accumulate citations, when do they peak and when do they die away?
Citation behaviours are known to be very field-specific. So to narrow things down, I focussed on cell biology and in one area “clathrin-mediated endocytosis” in particular. It’s an area that I’ve published in – of course this stuff is driven by self-interest. I downloaded data for 1000 papers from Web of Science that had accumulated the most citations. Reviews were excluded, as I assume their citation patterns are different from primary literature. The idea was just to take a large sample of papers on a topic. The data are pretty good, but there are some errors (see below).
Number-crunching (feel free to skip this bit): I imported the data into IgorPro making a 1D wave for each record (paper). I deleted the last point corresponding to cites in 2014 (the year is not complete). I aligned all records so that year of publication was 0. Next, the citations were normalised to the maximum number achieved in the peak year. This allows us to look at the lifecycle in a sensible way. Next I took out records to papers less than 6 years old as I reasoned these would have not have completed their lifecycle and could contaminate the analysis (it turned out to make little difference). The lifecycles were plotted and averaged. I also wrote a quick function to pull out the peak year for citations post hoc.
So what did it show?
Citations to a paper go up and go down, as expected (top left). When cumulative citations are plotted most of the articles have an initial burst and then level off. The exception are ~8 articles that continue to rise linearly (top right). On average a paper generates its peak citations three years after publication (box plot). The fall after this peak period is pretty linear and it’s apparently all over somewhere >15 years after publication (bottom left). To look at the decline in more detail I aligned the papers so that year 0 was the year of peak citations. The average now loses almost 40% of those peak citations in the following year and then declines steadily (bottom right).
Edit: The dreaded Impact Factor calculation takes the citations to articles published in the preceding 2 years and divides by the number of citable items in that period. This means that each paper only contributes to the Impact Factor in years 1 and 2. This is before the average paper reaches its peak citation period. Thanks to David Stephens (@david_s_bristol) for pointing this out. The alternative 5 year Impact Factor gets around this limitation.
Perhaps lifecycle is the wrong term: papers in this dataset don’t actually ‘die’, i.e. go to 0 citations. There is always a chance that a paper will pick up the odd citation. Papers published 15 years ago are still clocking 20% of their peak citations. Looking at papers cited at lower rates would be informative here.
Two other weaknesses that affect precision is that 1) a year is a long time and 2) publication is subject to long lag times. The analysis would be improved by categorising the records based on the month-year when the paper was published and the month-year when each citation comes in. Papers published in January in one year probably have a different peak than those published in December of the same year, but this is lost when looking at year alone. Secondly, due to publication lag, it is impossible to know when the peak period of influence for a paper truly is.
Problems in the dataset. Some reviews remained despite being supposedly excluded, i.e. they are not properly tagged in the database. Also, some records have citations from years before the article was published! The numbers of citations are small enough to not worry for this analysis, but it makes you wonder about how accurate the whole dataset is. I’ve written before about how complete citation data may or may not be. These sorts of things are a concern for all of us who are judged by these things for hiring and promotion decisions.
The post title is taken from ‘Sure To Fall’ by The Beatles, recorded during The Decca Sessions.