Making your case for impact if you have few citations

Provides advice on strategies to demonstrate impact with a very low citation level

Of course it is rather difficult to make your case for academic research impact (usually measured as citations) if you have very few citations overall. This will often be the case if you are a junior researcher who has started publishing quite recently. In this instance, there are several things you can do beyond making the argument that citation scores in your discipline are generally low (only if that’s the case of course).

Argue for the use of Google Scholar

First, if your University prefers the Web of Science as a data source and you have very few citations in the Web of Science, but a respectable number of citations in Google Scholar, you can argue that Google Scholar citations are a more accurate measurement of citation impact for junior scholars.

This is true because Google Scholar includes citations in Masters and Doctoral theses, conference proceedings and working papers that, in most cases, will ultimately be reflected in Web of Science citations. Google Scholar also includes books, book chapters, a much wider range of journals than Web of Science, especially in the Social Sciences and Humanities. For details on these differences see From h-index to hIa. You can use my free Publish or Perish software to calculate these metrics.

Compare your articles with others published in the same year

Second, if you don’t have many citations in Google Scholar either, but have one or two articles with more than an incidental number of citations, try to compare these articles with other articles in the same journal that year. Even if a 2015 article has only accumulated a couple of Google Scholar citations by the end of the year, if most of the articles in the journal from the same year have no citations so far, you have a pretty good case to make.

The screenshot of a search with my free Publish or Perish software shows an example of one of my former Melbourne colleagues – Sachiko Yamao – who published a paper in the Journal of World Business in 2015. In December 2015, nearly two thirds of the articles published in 2015 had 0 or 1 citation, with 1.75 citations per paper on average. So Sachiko would be able to make a good case for future impact given that her article already had 6 citations. Early citations are usually reflective of high eventual citation counts. Indeed, two years later the same article had 28 citations and was still ranked in the top-10 most highly cited articles in the journal that year.

Present ISI baseline data for your field

Third, you can put your lack of citations in context by presenting your evaluation panel with the average number of citations for articles of a certain age published in certain disciplines. Unfortunately, this type information is not readily available for Google Scholar. However, it can be found for citations to publications in ISI listed journals (which unfortunately only covers a part of the entire journal universe especially in the Social Sciences and Humanities) in the Web of Knowledge database “Essential Science Indicators Baselines”.

  • Even a few citations can still mean being highly-cited: For instance, if you had published an article in an ISI listed journal in Economics & Business in 2014 that – in December 2015 – had even just two ISI citation, your article would already be in the top 20% most cited articles. Three citations would  put it in the top 10% most cited articles. Obviously, for articles published in earlier years the number of citations to be in the top 20%/10% will go up.
  • Lack of a significant number of citations is normal: However, a paper published in an ISI listed journal in Computer Science in 2010 with only three citations in 2015 would still be in the top 50% of most-cited papers for that discipline, i.e. the lack of a significant number of citations would be quite normal. Thus, even though you wouldn’t be able convince your tenure or promotion committee your ISI citation record is stellar, if you work in these fields you should be able to convince them that your lack of a significant number of citations is quite normal.
  • Disciplinary differences in expected citations are very strong: In fact, in Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, even for papers in ISI listed journals that are 10 years old, 4-5 ISI citations might be enough to put an article in the top 50% most cited papers in their fields, around 20 citations puts you in the top 10%. For the Social Sciences, these numbers are not much higher. This is partly due to the lack of comprehensive coverage of the Web of Science in these disciplines. However, it is also due to differences in citation behaviour across fields. To be in the top 50% most cited articles in Molecular Biology & Genetics, you would need your 10-year old paper to have 26 citations, whereas 116 citations are needed to be in the top 10%.


Argue citations are slow to pick up

This is a generic version of the two specific strategies described above. If you do not have many citations in Google Scholar either and do not have any papers with more than an incidental number of citations, your only choice is probably to explain that citations take a long time to pick up. This is particularly true for the Social Sciences and Humanities, where the publication process is generally more drawn-out with many rounds of revisions and even accepted publications can take a long time to finally appear in print.

Taking my own case as an example, my current Web of Science citation record puts me in the upper fifth of the top 1% most cited academics for 2007-2017 in my field and I typically receive around 800 new Web of Science citations every year. However, my citations took rather a long time to take off. My first publication appeared in 1995 and by 2000 I had about a dozen publications printed or in press/accepted. However, at the start of 2000 I only had 9 ISI citations (with 20 new citations in 2000 and 27 new citations in 2001). If I had had to make my tenure case after just 5 years I wouldn’t have had much to show for in terms of research impact.

You might be able to apply this strategy by doing some analyses for top people in your field and look at their first five years after they published their first article. This strategy is probably most effective when combined with the next strategy.

Argue for quality by association

Finally, if you have only a few citations in either the Web of Science or Google Scholar, it might be worth tracking each of them down to see who is citing your work and in which outlets. It is more impressive when many of your citations occur in the top journals in your field or if some famous academics in your field cite your articles. Some of the fame and quality image of the journals and of the academics citing your work might rub off on you in the eyes of your evaluation committee.

If you have very few citations, you may also need to focus on the quality of the journals that your work appeared. Whilst in general, this is not appropriate as some papers in top journals never get cited, on average papers in top journals get cited more than papers in lower-ranked journals. That’s why they have higher Journal Impact Factors. Therefore, if your work has been published in high-impact journals, you can make the case that it is more likely that your work will be highly cited.

In addition, you should of course make the argument that these journals have generally higher quality standards for the work they publish and a more rigorous review process. However, that’s a quality argument, not a citation impact argument.

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