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At one point or another, every aspiring scientist dreams of someday revolutionizing their field. After all, who wouldn’t love to publish a body of work that goes on to be remembered for heralding some exciting new discovery or for challenging longstanding paradigms or schools of thought?
But how realistic are such aspirations, particularly in psychology? If you’re a psychological scientist publishing research in peer-reviewed journals, what are the chances that others will read and cite your work? And how many citations does a typical research paper in psychology receive?
To find out, I used the online database Web of Science to gather citation data for a large number of peer-reviewed articles published in psychological journals. I restricted my search using the following criteria:
- Articles published between 2005 and 2010 (ensuring all articles in the dataset had a minimum of 5 years to be cited).
- Articles published in English.
- Articles published in the United States.
- Articles restricted to the five most popular Web of Science categories for psychology (i.e., Psychology Experimental, Psychology Clinical, Psychology Multidisciplinary, Psychology, & Psychology Developmental).
- I excluded articles published in open access journals, as well as articles published in the research area of psychiatry.
After applying these restrictions, I was left with 47,902 publications.
Table 1 below shows the top 10 most highly cited papers that meet the above criteria.
Table 1: Top 10 Most Highly Cited Papers in Psychology Published within the Last 10 Years (2005-2010).
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If one of these papers is yours, then congratulations! You’re living the academic dream.
But not everyone can be an academic superstar. In fact, due to increased competition in science, it’s probably quite difficult nowadays to achieve individual fame and prestige. Indeed, more articles are published in peer-reviewed journals today than ever before, making it that much more difficult for one (or a select few) to stand out.
So how many citations does the average research paper in psychology receive?
Figure 1 below shows the distribution of all 48,000 journal articles in the dataset according to number of citations.
Figure 1: Frequency Histogram Showing Number of Citations for Peer-Reviewed Articles Published in Psychological Journals Between 2005 and 2010.
Among all 48,000 papers, 25% received fewer than 6 citations, and 75% received fewer than 27 citations. The median research paper in psychology received 12 citations.
Although 12 citations sounds like a fairly respectable average, keep in mind that the median research paper is not necessarily the prototypical research paper. Furthermore, the median systematically varies according to time since publication. As you can see in Figure 2, the median number of citations is lower for papers published in 2010 than for papers published in 2005. This is unsurprising, given that recently published papers will invariably have fewer citations on average than papers published several years ago.
As such, a more appropriate measure of “averageness” in this case might be the mode. Because the mode is the most frequent score in a dataset, it provides us with a better idea of the number of citations for the most typical research paper in psychology. Furthermore, as you can see in Figure 2, the mode is fairly stable from year to year.*
*Note: Although this might be due, in part, to a floor effect. The modal number of citations is already so low, there is not much room to go any lower.
Figure 2: Average Number of Citations for Articles in Psychology by Year of Publication (2005 – 2010).
So although 50% of research papers in psychology receive up to 12 citations within about 5-10 years following publication, the modal (or most typical) research paper receives a meager 2 citations. Notably, this does not exclude instances of self-citation, where an author cites his or her own work.
Why Do Science if No One Will Read Your Work?
What should we take away from all this?
Should aspiring psychological scientists be discouraged that their work will (probabilistically speaking) have only a minor impact on their field? Should graduate students temper their enthusiasm for their research and resolve themselves early on to the fact that their work will most likely not go on to be widely cited?
Not necessarily. After all, science is not about the pursuit of glory, prestige, and personal recognition. And it’s not about seeking to be perceived by others as an “authority” on some topic either. In fact, whether one is perceived as an authority is completely irrelevant in science. And this is one of the many beauties of our field. When arguments are believed or not believed on the basis of empirical data alone, characteristics of the individual matter very little.
Science has built-in error-correcting mechanisms—because science recognizes that scientists, like everybody else, are fallible, that we make mistakes, that we’re driven by the same prejudices as everybody else. There are no forbidden questions. Arguments from authority are worthless. Claims must be demonstrated. Ad hominem arguments—arguments about the personality of somebody who disagrees with you—are irrelevant; they can be sleazeballs and be right, and you can be a pillar of the community and be wrong.
*Italics added by me.
As human beings, scientists are obviously far from perfect. Yet to be a scientist means to be a part of something much larger than any one individual. To be a scientist means to be a part of humanity’s continuing search to uncover and understand the mysteries of the world around us. In the face of this extraordinary challenge, we should at least try to rise above the petty concerns of our egos. This means setting aside concern about who reads and cites your work, and remembering that science is often lonely and thankless. Nonetheless, lack of recognition and appreciation does not diminish the importance of a new contribution (however small) to our collective knowledge and understanding about the world.
Although all this might sound a bit cliché, it’s important that we remind ourselves of the ideals of science from time to time. After all, excessive concern about publishing high impact research findings is likely at the root of many cases of scientific misconduct and fraud. And at a time when there is increased public discussion about the validity and replicability of scientific findings, we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow citizens to actively work to strengthen public trust in science.
So is it wrong for early career scientists to want to have a profound impact on their field and to be cited by colleagues? Certainly not. Sure, most scientists will not go on to achieve professional fame even within their own niche area of research. Nonetheless, I prefer to believe that our somewhat naive optimism regarding our own personal futures is part of what drives us to dream big and (sometimes) “achieve big,” as well. And when scientists do, in fact, make notable achievements through their research, it is the general public that benefits – through advancements in medicine, therapy, and technology.
So if you are a graduate student in psychology or another field of science, hold on to your optimistic view of your professional future. Have high hopes for your research, provided you’re motivated by a desire to benefit the world’s communities rather than merely your own personal career.
As I see it, pursuit of an optimistic future – as opposed to personal fame and recognition – is a defining characteristic of what it means to be a scientist.
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla