Useless ranking (Photo credit: Massimo Pizzol)

Addicted to citations

I check my Google Scholar profile ever day to see if I got new citations. Same with my Scopus profile. Every single day. This is sick, but wait, there is more. Once in a while when I feel bold enough or just masochist enough I check the profile of some other researchers that I believe are in my league. That usually ends bad because they always have more citations than me. Then I feel like a beaten Street Fighter II character must feel and I try to find some lame excuse for why I am not as cited as my peers.

Citations are not everything. But how to interpret and look beyond citation count? What are factors influencing citation count? Is it important? Let’s see. Here below I compare my profile with the profile of three other peers considering both citation count and other little details. To protect their privacy I anonymously identify them with names of beautiful animals: Gazelle, Flamingo, Dolphin.


Gazelle is a bit younger than me, very hard working and persistent, worked in different countries and spent at least some years in a prestigious group and university. Full time researcher (no teaching). Has produced the same number of papers as me, more or less, and in similar journals. But has 20% more citations. At a closer look, I can see that Gazelle has co-authored a paper that has been extremely popular and counts for about 1/3 of Gazelle’s citations. Also, ranking the papers by citation, I can see that Gazelle is not the first author in the most cited papers. Gazelle has an extremely good intuition and has always published timely on the hot topics. I expect Gazelle’s citation count will keep growing very fast.


Flamingo is just a bit older than me, hard working, career between prestigious groups and institutions. Teacher and researcher. Has produced a bit more papers than me, but some are in better journals ( = higher impact factor), and doubles my citations. Flamingo has not produced any super-cited paper, but several well cited ones on a range of topics within the same scientific area - which means Flamingo will soon become a reference name in this area. Flamingo has published a lot of papers in collaboration with top researchers, which indicates Flamingo is well connected in the research community. Such a strong profile. :+1:


Dolphin is also a bit younger than me, extremely hard working, well connected, made the whole career in a prestigious group and university. Teacher and researcher. Has produced 30% more papers than me and many of these in much better journals and has three times more citations than me. Dolphin is the first author on all its most cited papers and has co-authored many papers with other top researchers. Also, Dolphin was able to make incursions in different fields and therefore publish in high ranking journals where normally my peers don’t arrive. A real rockstar profile. I’ll never look at Dolphin’s citation count again, I feel smashed!

The analysis

The following can be considered a clever analysis, pathetic excuses, or simply some considerations.

I have looked at three profiles beyond the quantitative indicator that is citation count and examining other elements such as the journal ranking, timing or consistency of the topics, prestige of the affiliation, personal history of the researcher. Several factors affect research output as quantified in number of publications and citations, below are those that matter in my case.

Time. Some researchers work 24/7, I don’t. I teach a lot (up to 50% of the time) and this leaves less time for doing research compared to others. I have also invested a lot of my time in learning how to become a better teacher and in preparing course material, this took years. I have family, this means periods of leave (a privilege!) and that I don’t work after office hours nor in the weekend (should be normal, but again a privilege!). I rarely work at night because I am an A-type of person (in this sense, not in this other sense). Would I have produced more papers if I had not become a teacher or not had kids? Perhaps, but I have no regrets honestly.

Path. During my PhD and soon after I was working mostly on external costs assessment and a little bit about life cycle impact assessment. After the PhD this pattern changed, I started working on system analysis and primarily life cycle assessment. My research trajectory changed substantially. I can see a split in the types of publications before and after my PhD. This means I invested resources in learning new things and I experienced more friction when publishing in a new area, which are also factors that affected negatively my research output.

Network. Belonging to a prestigious institution and having a rockstar supervisor can facilitate publication and increase citations. Because reputation matters and it would be naive to think otherwise, wouldn’t it? There are downsides of course, like hard competition to get into these institutions, famous supervisors are very busy, etc. I don’t think I have enough direct experience to elaborate on this, so I’ll leave it for now. Networking is really important and has helped me a lot in publishing. Being connected with and known by other top researchers, and publishing with them, gives a good advantage. In general I find that publishing with seniors goes faster and gives more citations. Collaborating with juniors is very rewarding though (and I get to know very talented young people!) so I won’t stop doing that.

Topic. Some topics are trendy and some others are niche. Some topics are addressed in lower-ranking journals than others. Being able to publish timely on a hot topic in a high ranking journal maximises citations, but not everybody can afford that - and sometimes it is a matter of being a bit lucky too. I also think there is a risk of compromising quality when trying to be fashionable at all costs. So I won’t suddenly start writing papers on circular economy or industry 4.0 just because everybody is talking about that. I hope to write some blockchain papers though…:) (future post on its way).

Beyond my peers

All the above is only based on my small, biased, and very personal sample. But there is of course plenty of scientific literature written on the topic within the field of Scientometrics (love the name) and some confirms my impressions. In particular I found interesting these papers:

  • Pan et al., 2014. Author impact factor: Tracking the dynamics of individual scientific impact. A Nature paper with a lateral thinking message: focus on the author not on the paper. Not sure I like this, but anyway…
  • Onodera et al, 2014. Factors affecting citation rates of research articles. Experimental paper, focuses on factors not directly related to the quality or content of articles, like the amount of references. Contains a reasonably condensed literature review on the topic.
  • Tahamtan et al., 2016. Factors affecting number of citations: a comprehensive review of the literature. A very extensive paper, as the title says, reviews both intrinsic (quality- & content-related) and extrinsic factors.

The point

Citation count is indeed important. People look at that, perhaps too much, and it is a sign that my work is being received by the scientific community and sometimes even beyond that, and therefore has a value.

Citation count is however a partial indicator of how valuable my work is, not to say of how good or successful I am compared to my peers. First of all because they have a different history, profile, and interests. Secondly because it doesn’t tell much about the quality of the publications. Review papers and controversial position papers are often more cited than experimental ones, for example, but I would not write reviews and viewpoints all the time honestly. Some of the papers that I have enjoyed the most writing and I think are super cool are less cited than other papers of mine that are…just good papers.

Finally, citation count does not indicate how good I am as a person. This should be completely obvious but let’s just write it anyway.

To conclude, it’s fun to check citations every day and see the number increase. It’s a little sign that the hard daily work is making an impact out there and not simply disappearing in oblivion. It’s also fun to compare citations with others as long as this leads to a healthy competition and increases motivation, always keeping in mind the differences between peers. But if citations decrease and somebody else is more cited than me then…well, screw it I sleep well at night anyway.

(Unless the kids wake me up)