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Literature reviews ‘poach attention’ from original research

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 18 May 2021

A pair of peafowl, a peahen in the foreground and the peacock displaying his train.

Source: iStock

Having your journal paper listed in a review article might be a welcome acknowledgement that scholars are reading your work, but it is likely to wreck your chances of being cited, says a study of how literature round-ups “poach attention” from original work.

Drawing on analysis of almost 6 million articles published in the world’s most-cited journals over the past 30 years, US researchers found that papers received 38 per cent fewer citations on average for each review in which they were included.

“Typically, the review gets cited going forward instead of the specific articles mentioned in the review,” the paper published in the American Sociological Review says about the “dramatic” and “disproportionate” loss in future citations.

“It’s a lot stronger effect than we expected,” said Peter McMahan, assistant professor of sociology at Montreal’s McGill University, who co-authored the study with Stanford University’s Daniel McFarland.

“If your paper is being cited by multiple reviews, then the effect is even worse on your citations,” Dr McMahan said.

But while some scholars might feel aggrieved at losing their citations to those who merely quote them, it was important to recognise the scholarly value of bringing together large bodies of knowledge and making useful connections between them, explained Dr McMahan.

“We can all do a Google Scholar research round-up, but most review articles are doing something much more productive by making links between different areas of research and engaging at a deep level with papers to understand which are worthwhile and which are not,” he said.

The explosion of research on Covid-19 during the pandemic – some of which has been criticised for being poor quality and accepted only because of rushed peer review – illustrated the importance of sophisticated review papers that bridged different disciplines, despite concerns that some academics have cynically used Covid reviews to scoop up citations without actually doing research themselves, Dr McMahan added.

“It is a vital time to be doing this kind of research as there is a lot of research that might be a decade old but has renewed relevance for Covid-19,” he explained.

“Some of these review articles might be opportunistic and might not be more than a collection of internet links, but many will involve high-level research that will shape the conversation and are an important part of how knowledge grows.”