"The discovery of high-temperature superconductors, the determination of DNA’s double-helix structure, the first observations that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating — all of these breakthroughs won Nobel prizes and international acclaim. Yet none of the papers that announced them comes anywhere close to ranking among the 100 most highly cited papers of all time." writes Nature.com.
Citations, in which one paper refers to earlier works, are the standard means by which authors acknowledge the source of their methods, ideas and findings, and are often used as a rough measure of a paper’s importance. Fifty years ago, Eugene Garfield published the Science Citation Index (SCI), the first systematic effort to track citations in the scientific literature. To mark the anniversary, Nature asked Thomson Reuters, which now owns the SCI, to list the 100 most highly cited papers of all time. (See the full list at Web of Science Top 100.xls or the interactive graphic). The search covered all of Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science, an online version of the SCI that also includes databases covering the social sciences, arts and humanities, conference proceedings and some books. It lists papers published from 1900 to the present day.
The paper mountain
The exercise revealed some surprises, not least that it takes a staggering 12,119 citations to rank in the top 100 — and that many of the world’s most famous papers do not make the cut. A few that do, such as the first observation1 of carbon nanotubes (number 36) are indeed classic discoveries. But the vast majority describe experimental methods or software that have become essential in their fields.
The most cited work in history, for example, is a 1951 paper2 describing an assay to determine the amount of protein in a solution. It has now gathered more than 305,000 citations — a recognition that always puzzled its lead author, the late US biochemist Oliver Lowry. “Although I really know it is not a great paper … I secretly get a kick out of the response,” he wrote in 1977.
The colossal size of the scholarly literature means that the top-100 papers are extreme outliers. Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science holds some 58 million items. If that corpus were scaled to Mount Kilimanjaro, then the 100 most-cited papers would represent just 1 centimetre at the peak. Only 14,499 papers — roughly a metre and a half’s worth — have more than 1,000 citations (see ‘The paper mountain’). Meanwhile, the foothills comprise works that have been cited only once, if at all — a group that encompasses roughly half of the items.
Source: Nature.com and nature video's Channel (YouTube)