Project description

This feature explores the science that goes on the scrapheap: scientific research that has been, apparently, ignored by other scholars. There’s a popular conception that the literature is awash with uncited research, but this isn’t really true. So how many research papers never get a single citation – and are they actually useless, or do they get used in some way other than being cited? It was written for Nature’s audience of scientists.

What makes this project innovative?

No-one had taken on this kind of story before, because there aren’t particularly good data sources for it. (The only vaguely complete database – the Web of Science – that could be interrogated, doesn’t track all of science, and doesn’t keep perfect records of citation patterns.). So the story is really a methodological one, as much as a story with an answer.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The story attracted 96,308 unique page views [Google Analytics] – making it one of Nature’s most-read stories in the past quarter, and probably also in the last year (The company did not install Google Analytics until recently). And it was picked up on 12 blogs, and more than 1,700 tweets, according to Altmetric. Most of those who mentioned it were happy to find a nuanced account of never-cited science, discarding a myth that has hung around for decades, and pointing out that even no-cited research can be useful.

Source and methodology

We worked with scientists Vincent Lariviere (U Montreal) and Cassidy Sugimoto (U Bloomington, Indiana) to analyse the Web of Science – a proprietary database held by Clarivate Analytics. These researchers worked from a copy of the [paywalled] database held on their servers to chart zero-cited papers, including and without self-cites. We spent some time discussing the caveats of the findings and the meanings of disciplinary differences. At Nature, reporter Richard Van Noorden spent hours following up with individual scientists, and crosschecking with Google Scholar, to try to find examples of uncited papers and to tell their stories.

Technologies Used

Larivere and Sugimoto output their results into Excel sheets, and charts were drawn by Nature’s art dept from those results.

Project members

Chris Ryan

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