High Impact Research
in Lower Impact Packages

In recent coverage of a massive meta-analysis of the Google Scholar archives, the top-ten “elite” journals are compared to “the rest” in several broad disciplines.

For papers published from 1995 to 2013, there was a 64% average increase of top-1000 cited papers coming out of non-elite journals (here, “elite” = top-ten most-cited journals for a given category; “non-elite” = the rest). Lest you worry these represent the only cited articles in non-elite journals: the total share of citations going to non-elite articles rose from 27% to 47% over the same period.

Part of the reason for this sudden shift is digitization. In the conclusion to the paper the team responsible for Google Scholar (released 10 years ago in November 2014) state:

Now that finding and reading relevant articles in non-elite journals is about as easy as finding and reading articles in elite journals, researchers are increasingly building on and citing work published everywhere.

With the introduction of exactingly searchable databases, the playing field is indeed leveling for access and awareness of all tiers of journals, splashy-high-impact or otherwise. This naturally leads to faster and more efficient scientific endeavors. (Imagine getting even closer, accessing new developments and discoveries in near-real-time. If you think the rate of progress in science is dizzying now...)

Not mentioned, however, is the fact fields have grown more specialized, and publishers have responded by producing more specialty-specific journals. This may in part account for the increased share of non-elite citations: the publication of a groundbreaking article in a lower impact specialty journal will become a necessary citation in many subsequent papers in that and related fields. Another interesting point to consider in future studies is how open access journals measure up in citation rate.
It has also been documented that high impact, elite journals have higher rates of retraction (Fang 2011). Do the high impact works from non-elite journals show comparable rates of retraction? Given their high impact, many of the same explanations high impact journals give for higher retraction rates should still apply (i.e. increased exposure and thus increased scrutiny).

Regardless, it is clear that new considerations must be made and changes are underway with respect to academic publications. Hopefully scientists return to their roots of open discourse and dissemination of their data so we can get further, faster, together.

Fraction of citations to non-elite journals.


  1. F. C. Fang, A. Casadevall. Retracted Science and the Retraction Index. Infection and Immunity 79, 3855–3859 (2011). Link

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