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The 1% of scientific publishing

full_78b4e40d-7ae8-4e6f-b11a-86b964d46458Our evaluation of the entire Scopus database for the period 1996–2011 shows that, overall, only a very small fraction of researchers (<1% of the over 15 million publishing scientists) have an uninterrupted, continuous presence in the scientific literature and these investigators account for the lion’s share of authors who eventually have high citation impact. There is some variability on the relative prevalence of these investigators across different scientific disciplines, geographical regions, and sectors. The concentration of 87% of the most highly-cited papers among ~1% of scientists represents a heavy-tail phenomenon that is much stronger than the heavy-tail phenomena described for the concentration of influential papers in specific high-profile journals [16] or the concentration of most citations to a relatively modest proportion of papers (80/20 law) [17], [18].

Authors with uninterrupted, continuous presence over all these 16 years eventually had a much higher citation impact than other authors. To some extent this higher impact is generated through a larger volume of published papers. However, the citation impact in the UCP authors goes beyond just publishing more papers. Even after conditioning on the number of papers, the total citations and h-index of their work were higher than those of non-UCP authors; the exception was authors with fewer than 3 papers per year and who did not have any discernible difference in citation impact regardless of whether they had UCP or not.

The vast pool of authors without a continuous presence in the literature probably includes very different categories of people. First, some excellent scientists may intentionally prefer to publish sparingly in the journal literature, especially in the humanities and social sciences where books are a predominant form of communication; however, for most fields of current research, not publishing anything over a year is unlikely to be a desired choice, especially in academic circles, in contrast to industry where other deliverables are more important than publications and for hospital clinicians where patient care is more important than published track records. Second, for many researchers interrupted productivity may reflect life events (e.g., childbearing). Empirical studies have addressed for example gender differences in the continuity of scientific careers [19]. Interrupted productivity may also often reflect limitations and obstacles that scientists face, e.g., insufficient funding or infrastructure or other difficulties that create gaps in their productivity or even lead them to abandon science. Third, many authors may only be ancillary personnel or trainees rather than principal investigators. Fourth, we observed some variability in the prevalence of UCP across scientific disciplines. In the cumulative sciences, such as medical research, that depend on the incremental, continuous accumulation of relatively small bits of information, UCP is highly desirable; conversely, in other disciplines such as the social sciences and humanities, continuous publication on an annual basis may not be as necessary or desirable and many successful scientists may have more sporadically, scattered in time, publications of major works. Scientific disciplines with cumulative profiles however account for the large majority of publishing scientists currently.

Regardless of the exact career qualifications and trajectories of individual authors, our analysis suggests that even though the global scientific workforce is enormous, its continuously publishing core is still limited. Given that there are many thousands of universities and research institutions and each has tens and hundreds of teams and departments, the concentration of ~150,000 researchers can quickly get rarified. Many teams, departments, or even whole institutions may have none or very few researchers who belong to this core and even fewer who have also considerable impact.

Click here to read more from this July 9, 2014 PLOS ONE article by John P. A. Ioannidis et al.

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