Citation tracking can facilitate the review and evaluation of pertinent literature related to your topic of study for the following reasons:
- It can be an effective way of using a highly cited "landmark" or influential article to find more recent, related articles that cite the original work. It also can be an effective way of identifying important scholars in a particular field who have subsequently cited the work.
- It can be a useful means for evaluating a study's "impact" within a particular discipline based upon the number of times a research study has been cited by others. A highly cited study may indicate that the research findings are unique, groundbreaking, or controversial in some way.
- It can be an effective way to locate studies that critique or challenge groundbreaking research, which is important if you are seeking research to support your attempt to challenge long-held assumptions or to offer evidence that existing studies do not adequately address the research problem.
- It can be an effective means of determining the interdisciplinary value of a particular study because you can identify the amount of subsequent citations to an article from publications in other disciplines or areas of study. Studies that have been cited in a variety of disciplines is also a strong indication of the research study's overall impact throughout the social sciences [and perhaps beyond].
Keep in mind the following points when tracking citations:
- Authors do not always use the same name throughout their careers [e.g., Jane Anne Smith or Jane A. Smith] so be sure you work from a complete and accurate list of an author's publications. A thorough literature review of an author should reveal any variations in their name.
- In the case of the Web of Science citation database, it uses APA style for citing authors [last name and first initial only], so a J Smith could be John, Jeff, Jane, Julie, Jason, etc. Be sure to truncate the initial [adding an asterisk *] to see a more complete list of authors, then locate a record on a topic you know the author writes about and click on that author to exclude articles written by other J Smith's. Fortunately, the database indexes more than the first author of a paper so if a second or third author has an uncommon name, you could search the unusual name instead of using an author's common name.
- Citation services are primarily based on selected journal literature. If the author is cited in books, foreign language periodicals, or non-scholarly publications, the usefulness of your citation analysis is limited. In addition, citation databases such as Web of Science rarely cover articles published in scholarly open-access journals [journals published freely on the web], although this is slowly changing. In this case, be sure to check the "cited by" references in Google Scholar as it often includes citations found in other publications besides scholarly journals [e.g., book chapters, foreign publications].
- Pay attention to how recent the citations are when reviewing a particular study. An article published in 2000 may have 130 total citations but if the most recent citation is from 2008, then this is an indication that the study's impact has faded or there is a lack of progress in the field [unlikely]. The absence of recent citations does not necessarily mean a study no longer has value, but it's a strong indication that more recent research has overtaken prior studies or that external factors have influenced scholars to focus on other areas of inquiry. Review the most recent citations and see if any are highly cited; this may reveal where the research has deviated into a new direction.
Interpreting citations in Google Scholar and other databases:
- An item that is cited many times indicates impact, but it does not indicate value. In other words, just because a source has been cited numerous times doesn't mean it is a good source; it may be highly cited because others have used it as an example of a study that is poorly designed or used faulty methodologies or provided questionable conclusions. Review a sample of recent studies that have referenced the work and assess how the source is being described. Based on this, determine how it may be relevant to your own research [note that, when appropriate, a poorly designed study can be cited as an example in your paper of what not to do!].
- A study published many years ago will likely be cited more times than a recently published study. Again, though, the total number of times a source is cited does not indicate its value in regards to advancing knowledge. Review the most recent five or so years of citations to the original work. Is it still being cited or has there been a significant reduction in the number of times others have referenced the work? If there are few, if any, citations to the original work during the last few years, this may indicate that its impact has waned and new research has emerged.
- Concomitantly, a study may be considered foundational if it continues to be cited frequently in the most recently published literature on the topic [i.e., the study was the first to advanced new knowledge, theory, methodology, and/or understanding about the research problem or its application to practice]. In most cases, there is an expectation that a study interpreted to be foundational should be cited as the basis for launching your overall literature review. If a study is considered foundational or groundbreaking, it will generally be referenced this way in the current literature [e.g., "The early study by Smith established important principles of good practice in the clinical evaluation of childhood trauma that..."].
- Examine the multidisciplinary scope of the citations. Particularly for items published in the past twenty-five years when a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research emerged in the social and behavioral sciences, review citations to determine the scope of a source's impact across disciplines. This can be a good indicator of a study's overall impact because it has been referenced in a variety of different fields of research and in a variety of different investigative contexts or areas of applied practice.
- Examine whether the source is referenced alone or always grouped with other sources. This act of interpretation can be problematic, but, in general, a study that is consistently cited with other sources, though rarely referenced as a stand-alone study, may indicate that the research is not unique or distinctive in a way that stands out from the overall domain of prior research about the topic. This is not necessarily bad since many scholars may have investigated a specific research problem. However, in interpreting the relevance of a particular source in relation to your own research, sources that have never been referenced as a singular source of prior research can be an additional way of determining their overall impact.
Bakkalbasi, Nisa. “Three Options for Citation Tracking: Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science.” Biomedical Digital Libraries 3 (2006): http://www.bio-diglib.com/content/pdf/1742-5581-3-7.pdf; Lawrence, D. J. “Journal Citation Tracking and Journal Indexing.” Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 15 (September 1992): 415-417; Kloda, Lorie A. "Use Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science for Comprehensive Citation Tracking." Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 2 (2007): 87-90; Mavodza, Judith. Citation Tracking in Academic Libraries: An Overview. Oxford, UK: Chandos Publishing, May 2016; Weisbard, Phyllis Holman. “Citation Tracking: Citings and Sightings.” Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources 32 (Winter 2011): 21-25.