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Promoted physics studies are cited more

11 June 2021

A statistical analysis of Physical Review Letters papers shows correlations between number of citations and press coverage.

Stack of magazines
Credit: Sean Winters, CC BY-SA 2.0

Editors spend a lot of time selecting papers to be highlighted in their pages and promoted by other means. But according to Manolis Antonoyiannakis, an associate editor of Physical Review B in Ridge, New York, it’s been unclear how much of a difference that promotion makes. “Anecdotally we hear a lot of comments from authors who are happy or from readers that they found important papers through that coverage,” says Antonoyiannakis, who is also a bibliostatistics analyst at the American Physical Society (APS). Now he has gathered data indicating that journal editors’ promotional efforts may indeed be helping studies attract more attention from fellow scientists.

In a study published on 17 May on arXiv, Antonoyiannakis analyzed the fate of 17 458 manuscripts published by Physical Review Letters (PRL), the flagship journal of APS, between 2008 and 2012. He tracked how many citations the papers accumulated 1–7 years after publication and noted which ones had been promoted on any of eight additional platforms, including the APS online magazine Physics, the journals Nature and Nature Physics, and other sections of PRL.

Antonoyiannakis found that papers that had been given greater exposure attracted more citations. According to his data, papers covered in the Viewpoint section of Physics accrued the most citations on average. They were followed by papers covered in Nature’s Research Highlights section, Editors’ Suggestions in PRL, and the Research Highlights section of Nature Physics. “I played with a lot of samples,” Antonoyiannakis says. “The results largely stayed the same.”

To work out whether promotion on one or more venues could be used to predict which studies end up in the top 1% of physics papers in terms of citations, Antonoyiannakis analyzed the 2010 through 2018 annual lists of the most highly cited works released by the information services firm Clarivate Analytics, based in Philadelphia. On the lists were 1371 papers published in PRL.

Antonoyiannakis found that when a paper was mentioned in a Viewpoint article in Physics or in the Research Highlights section of Nature, it had around a 25% chance of becoming a top 1% most highly cited physics paper. “To me, it’s a very nice validation of peer review,” he adds, “that even post publication, you can find that higher scrutiny gives more citations.”

Vincent Larivière, an information scientist at the University of Montreal, Canada, who wasn’t involved with the arXiv study, says he isn’t surprised that Viewpoint articles lead to higher citations as there is more engagement on the part of the reader. By contrast, being featured on the cover of PRL led to only a small citation boost, likely because many researchers access journal papers online and bypass the cover page entirely.

Larivière explains that such studies cannot definitively determine whether a higher number of citations is due to editors’ skill at picking the right papers to publicize, or simply due to greater visibility. It’s likely a combination of both, he says.

Vincent Traag, a senior researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, agrees. He adds that a work may become highly cited regardless of promotion, or merely because editors mark it as worthy.

One key limitation of Antonoyiannakis’s paper is that his sample doesn’t include all of the vast number of news articles, features, opinion pieces, author interviews, and other items that cover physics studies—including those published by the mainstream media.

Antonoyiannakis recognizes that his study only scratches the surface of science media coverage and says he wants to explore other, more mainstream science news in the future. He speculates that although mainstream media coverage is usually tailored for the general public, it could still help research articles accumulate citations.

Previous studies have found that mainstream media coverage of papers is associated with elevated citation rates. A 2020 analysis of 496 biomedical studies published between 1988 and 2013 also found that papers mentioned in newspaper articles are cited more often. “However, correlation does not mean causation,” notes Estelle Dumas-Mallet, a biologist at the University of Bordeaux in France who coauthored the 2020 paper. “We also found scientific papers heavily covered in the press that were barely cited.”

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