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Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers

Gábor L. Lövei

Part I. Before you start

3. Citation Statistics, Scientometrics

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1While the quality of science is extremely difficult to measure, the field of scientometrics attempts to do so by studying how the impact of scientific publications can be measured. The task remains elusive, but one system, quite widely in use now, argues as follows.

2In a scientific paper, there are only two types of factual statements: already published, known information, which is necessary to enable people to understand how new information relates to earlier material, and the new information. While the new information is supported by the facts, data, figures and tables presented in the paper, the known facts are simply mentioned, with the reference to a publication where the relevant fact was first proven/published. This is called a citation. The precise bibliographic data of such citations are listed at the end of published papers, and they can be identified, counted, and summarised.

3Important findings, goes the argument, generate new research, and when the new discoveries are published, these previously published findings are cited as connecting links to the understanding of the new discovery. Such papers are therefore frequently cited. This approach equates high citation rates with high “impact”, which, according to this simplified perception, also indicates high importance and/or quality.

4It is easy to see that, even if we accept the above argument, a few key questions must be decided: what counts as a citation, where do we do the counting, who does the counting, and for how long?

5This is where business sense and sharp thinking came together to create a business opportunity, as well as a new field of analysis. Using its unique position, the Institute of Scientific Information (abbreviated to ISI; but one should not be misled by the name — this was not an institute, it was a business venture, publishing Current Contents) declared that a) we — ISI — will do the counting; b) a citation counts only if it appears in a journal covered by our publication, Current Contents, and; c) citations are “valid” and counted over a period of only 2 years after the publication date.

6Originally, the purpose was to identify the most influential journals, and according to the ISI philosophy, these were journals that published the most frequently cited articles. Citation (only during the 2 years after publication, remember) equalled scientific impact, and the index thus coined was named the “impact factor” (abbreviated to IF). Despite discussions and doubts almost from the beginning, IF has caught on and, today, there hardly is a scientist unaware of the term. The success of Current Contents had a knock-on effect on journals, and the ones with a higher IF had an advantage over their rivals, in terms of distribution, recognition, and competition for manuscripts presenting discoveries that were thought important. The same statistics were soon applied to organisations and even to individual scientists, and when ISI was sold to Thomson-Reuters, aggressive promotion of these more dubious uses intensified.

7A multitude of indices based on citation statistics has appeared since this original index, and there are several books and fora discussing their merits and demerits — the reader is directed to some of these; as a first step, to the ISI website itself, which today calls itself “Web of Knowledge” ( Here, only two of the most widely known indices are mentioned: the impact factor (IF) and the Hirsch index (h-index).

8The IF of a journal is defined as the average number of citations that a single article, published in that journal, receives in the range of journals covered by Web of Science in the two years after publication (see Box 2 for an example of how to calculate IF). It is worth pointing out — even if this has been done many times — the hubris that the naming of the statistics displays. Being a competitive species, humans could not resist taking the next step, from ranking journals this way to ranking scientists following a similar logic: scientists who publish in high-IF journals are important scientists, and those who do not, are not. There are many pitfalls along that route, and for a more detailed discussion, readers can find several sources; a good recent example is Mingers and Leyesdorf (forthcoming).

9 Even if we accept the above logic for assessing individual scientists, the use of the IF to rank journals where one publishes is imperfect — the IF values are averages, while the distribution of citations are very right-skewed: very few articles get much more than their expected share of citations, and become fashionable, or “citation classics”. Most articles get much less than the expected average number of citations: thus, the overall distribution of citations is very right-skewed. This was named the “Matthew Principle”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a passage in the Bible (Matthew 25: 29, RSV) claiming that to those who have, more will be given, and the poor will lose even what little they have.

10Given this state of affairs, a second, more logical, step was to use the number of actual, rather than potential, citations to assess scientists. Again, a multitude of indices have been suggested (Harzing, 2002); currently, much in vogue is the Hirsch-index, or h-index (Hirsch, 2006). To calculate someone’s h-index, all her publications are ranked according to the number of citations attracted, from the highest to the lowest. A person’s Hirsch index equals the number where the number of citations for any individual paper is not smaller than its rank number (see Box 3 for a calculated example). Several modifications and alternatives have been suggested, and the reader can find a good summary of these in the help files of the program “Publish or Perish”, developed by Anne-Wil Harzing (see her website:

11To be included among the journals covered in Current Contents originally, a candidate journal had to fulfil stringent criteria: regular publication according to a schedule, papers written by an international range of authors and on topics of wide interest, and a reasonably wide international distribution. Journals usually must wait for at least three years before they can get their first impact factor. Journals are now also ranked by their relative position in their category (occasionally in several categories), usually by quartiles (e.g. a Q1 journal is in the top 25 % of its group); sometimes the top 10 % also forms a separate class (called D1).

Box 2. The Impact Factor (IF) and its calculation
The so-called “impact factor” is, in fact, a very limited index, a combination of hubris, business acumen, impatience, and disregard for the genuinely novel. It was introduced by the then-Institute of Scientific Information, a business venture (not a research institute, only in the name) publishing the shortcut-to-scientific literature, Current Contents. The Impact Factor was defined to compare scientific journals, and is the average number of citations a scientific paper published in a journal receives in articles published in the journals appearing in the former Current Contents, now called Web of Knowledge (also known as Web of Science, WoS) in the two years after publication. Now also the 5-year impact factor is published, which is the number of citations in the same journals in the five years after the year of publication:
Journal IF year x= no. of citations in WoS journals, in year x, to articles published by journal in year x-2 + in year x-1 / no. of articles published by journal in years x-2 + no. articles published in year x-1
The journal Urban Ecosystems in 2014 has an impact factor of 2.685. It is calculated the following way:
Citationsin2014to 2013=96 Numberofitems 2013=51
itemspublishedin: 2012=202 publishedin: 2012=60
Sum: 298 Sum: 111 citations to recent items 298
Impact factor = _______________________ = ____ = 2.685 no. of recent items 111

Box 3. How to calculate the Hirsch-index, h
This index was suggested by E.J. Hirsch (2005).
In order to calculate the index, first one has to rank all one’s publications according to the number of citations it received, in a descending order.
The index is the value of the rank where the number of citations received by that paper is still larger than its rank number. It is claimed that this index does not depend on the publication activity in a field. This claim is clearly suspect, because the number of citations depends on the size of the “citing universe” as well as the citable universe (the number of one’s own publications).
The Hirsch-index tends to favour senior academics, because they can have a longer list of papers. It also underemphasises the highly influential papers. In order to achieve a Hirsch-index of 20, it does not matter if the top-ranked article is cited 20 times or 200 times. For example, one can have an h-index of 20 with 20 papers and 400 citations — if all 20 were cited 20 times — and someone with 4000 citations can have a similar h=20 if her 21st article in the rank was cited <21 times.
Number of citations to paper by rank Total Hirsch-
no. of index
Name 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th citations
AA 20 10 5 4 4 4 47 4
BB 150 120 100 92 4 4 470 4
CC 5 5 5 5 5 5 30 5
As the examples show, the total number of citations does not matter, only the number of citations of a paper relative to its rank — thus, AA and BB have equal h-index values. CC only has 30 citations, yet his h-index is the highest of the three. Nevertheless, this index, due to its simplicity, has become a current favourite, especially among science administrators.
It is suggested that a Hirsch-index of h>20 indicates internationally significant scientific output, and an h>30 an exceptionally influential one.
There are several related indices that aim to correct the identified disadvantages of the Hirsch-index, such as the age of the publication, the number of authors, or the size of citation “excess”. A good summary can be found in the help pages of the Publish or Perish software or the accompanying book (Harzing 2010).

12 The citation statistics of thousands of journals are collated and published in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR), issued yearly by Web of Science. These statistics, available only by subscription, are widely known, popularised, and used for various purposes. Recently, a few alternatives have emerged. Scopus ( collects citations and various scientometric indices from the Internet, but its coverage of the literature is limited. This is a for-payment service, but the freely available program “Publish or Perish” (see above), calculates numerous citation statistics, using information in the free database Google Scholar. Harzing runs a well-maintained website, and published a book (Harzing, 2010) that describes many of the advantages and disadvantages of using scientometric indices. Google Scholar itself also has the capacity to calculate scientometric indices that can be used by any registered visitor. Both platforms are less English-biased than Web of Science.

13Citations have become the dominant way of measuring scientific impact, and various statistics related to them are followed, counted, collected, documented and used by scientists themselves, as well as by journals and various science-related organisations. Citations are also being manipulated in various ways, the easiest of which is self-citation. This is done by journals as well as individual scientists and consequently, today, there is a distinction between “independent” and “dependent” citations. A citation counts as independent if no author of the citing document is an author on the cited document. If even one of the cited authors is also a citing author, this is counted as dependent or self-citation.

14In general, there is much to resent in the superficial use of scientometric indices, and scientists must engage with science administrators to increase the mutual understanding of the benefits and limits of these methods. I suggest that readers familiarise themselves with the basics of scientometrics and become aware of some of the major controversies, because the use of such statistics is not going to disappear from science. The field is fast developing, with a major academic journal, Scientometrics, and numerous books (e.g. Vinkler, 2010) dedicated to the topic. The misuse of scientometrics lead to the San Francisco Declaration that provides guidance to the various parties engaged in science, from practice to policy (see​).


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