Are 90% of academic papers really never cited?

There’s a fantastic article on the LSE Impact Blog which addresses this often cited yet rarely substantiated claim:

Many academic articles are never cited, although I could not find any study with a result as high as 90%. Non-citation rates vary enormously by field. “Only” 12% of medicine articles are not cited, compared to about 82% (!) for the humanities. It’s 27% for natural sciences and 32% for social sciences (cite). For everything except humanities, those numbers are far from 90% but they are still high: One third of social science articles go uncited! Ten points for academia’s critics. Before we slash humanities departments, though, remember that much of their most prestigious research is published in books. On the other hand, at least in literature, many books are rarely cited too.

It sources and refutes the original 90% claim while also exploring some of the wider issues involved. An interesting question occurred to me: why has that 90% claim circulated so readily despite it being an over-estimation for the humanities and emphatically wrong for other disciplines? It is an ‘urban legend’ as the author puts it in the blog post. It appears to confirm a perhaps unspoken fear (“no one cares about what I write”) or a self-aggrandising prejudice (“I get cited a lot but other people’s work is crap”) and this affectively imbued confirmation bias keeps the claim circulating.

Or so I’m thinking while in the process of writing a chapter about ‘promoting your work’. I’m worried that ‘promotion’ sounds too instrumental. But equally I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact I want to promote my work. Given how much time and effort I put into writing it, surely it’s the most natural thing in the world to want to ensure that it’s visible?

5 responses to “Are 90% of academic papers really never cited?”

  1. “Given how much time….”

    This is where Discovery and Invention meet the Road…rubber to pavement, as it were. If there is no justifiable claim to advance certain ‘insights’ on ANY ‘endeavor’ (not just writing and publication (iwf)), there can be no recurrent enthusiasm on one’s theme…and of all descriptions comprehensible to Understanding, properly ‘grasped’, our Theme must Advance…the rhetoric of process being virtually inevitable…thus Persuasion is tantamount to one’s essential purpose, not mere commentary, and Interest tantamount to recurrent enthusiasm for one’s Topic/s.

    It’s auto and re-enforcing Argument at best (you take the High Road); speculative, conjectural, synthetic and subjective at worst (I’ll take the Low Road). The fault only lies where these paths do NOT come together meaningfully in some ‘kind’ of Goal/s. Like one’s every bit writing, somehow they must end in each ‘other’, as if fatally. Thence, a Third Thing…as some spooky theoreticians have stated, Newton not the least. Some manner of dimension-ality, I’m thinking. Clumsy.

  2. This is one reason why quoting one’s own previous work is useful, I suppose!

    Regarding the promotion of one’s work, I do not see it as strictly instrumental. It makes absolute sense to share the results of a research project that was funded by governments, for example, because governments get their money from populations. So why not share with the public what they paid for? There are other reasons of course, one of them being that the people scientists work with might need or want the results to be shared widely. Roger Sanjeck wrote an interesting paper about the responsability of going public after completing a project, you might enjoy reading it.

    Sanjek, R. (2004). Going Public, Responsabilitiies and Strategies in the Aftermath of Ethnography.

  3. Of course, 90% is not the exact figure but fussing about the figure provides an easy out for academics who don’t want to consider why academics (not just policy makers) promote these high figures of unread literature (i.e., they dismiss the false high figure as an implicit conspiracy between the neo-liberal stooges and the disgruntled academics who feel undervalued.) But even if you found out that only 60% of articles are never read, I doubt that would help to justify public funding for research. So one needs to address a deeper problem, which has to do with the way academic and non-academic measures of impact interact.

  4. I agree – I think there’s a further element of avoidance here as well though. If a majority of literature isn’t being cited then I honestly don’t see how anyone can deny the brute fact of over-production. I don’t think a lack of value of any particular text can be inferred from it not being cited (being stranded in an inter-textual wilderness) but I think a general lack of value can be inferred from a general lack of citation. Something has gone badly wrong if no one engages with the majority of literature and, as far as I can see, citation is the best metric to track engagement, even if it is obviously fallible.

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