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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.


Citation tracking refers to a method of measuring the impact of research studies and/or for identifying leading scholars in a particular discipline based upon a systematic analysis of who has cited a particular study, how often a specific research study has been cited by others, and by exploring what disciplines are represented by those subsequent citations.

Mavodza, Judith. Citation Tracking in Academic Libraries: An Overview. Oxford, UK: Chandos Publishing, May 2016.

Importance of...

Citation tracking can facilitate the review and evaluation of literature pertinent to your topic of study for the following reasons:

  1. 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 strategy of identifying important scholars in a particular area of study who have subsequently cited the work.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. It can be an effective means of determining the interdisciplinary value of a particular study because you can identify the number of subsequent citations in publications by scholars in other disciplines or fields 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 can 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 have limited coverage of 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., books, book chapters, research reports, 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 2011, 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 can be 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.

Bakkalbasi, Nisa. “Three Options for Citation Tracking: Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science.” Biomedical Digital Libraries 3 (2006):; 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;

Interpreting "Cited By" References in Databases

In Google Scholar and many library research databases, records can indicate the item has been "cited by" followed by a number [e.g., Cited by 154]. The number indicates how many times a study has been subsequently cited by other authors in other publications. However, the number of times a journal article or other publication has been cited after it was published is more nuanced than a total number count. When reviewing "cited by" references in Google Scholar and other databases, consider the following factors:

  • An item that is cited many times indicates impact, but it does not indicate value. Citations are value-neutral. A study may be cited frequently because it added important new knowledge to understanding the topic. However, a study could also be cited frequently because subsequent research determined that the original study was poorly designed, the author employed an imprecise methodological approach, or the conclusions were suspect or perhaps even misleading. Use the date limitation function to review a sample of recent studies that have referenced the work and assess how the source is currently being described. Based on this, determine how it may be relevant to your own research [note that, when appropriate, you can cite a poorly designed study as an example in your paper of what not to do!].
  • A source that is "highly cited" is a subjective assessment of impact, not an objective measurement or formal statistical calculation. Should a study published ten years ago with 800 cited by references in Google Scholar be considered a highly cited source? How about an article published ten years ago that has 2,000 cited by references? Is that source better than the other in terms of assessing whether it should included in the literature review section of your paper? What about a source with only 120 cited by references? There is a wide variation of what constitutes a frequently cited source. Ultimately, the number of cited by references is relevant to you only in relation to the research problem being investigated. If the study directly informs your understanding of the topic, you should review the cited by references. If there are a manageable number, review them all. If there is a large number of references, focus on reviewing the most recent sources.
  • In general, a study published many years ago should have more cited by references than a study published recently. However, this is not always the case. Once published, a groundbreaking study can become frequently cited very quickly, particularly if, for example, the study was published in a core research journal and, therefore, read by all the leading scholars in the discipline, it was published in a source read by researchers in multiple disciplines, or the research has been written about in national newspapers and magazines, discussed on television news programs, or even talked about and shared on social media sites. A way to discern impact over time is to count the number of recent citations to a study [e.g., the last four years]. If the study has been cited only a few times, this likely indicate that the study is no longer making an impact and researchers have moved on to examining other aspects of the research problem.
  • Concomitantly, a study may be considered foundational if it continues to be cited frequently in the most recently published literature on the topic. This may be due to the study being the first to advance new knowledge, theory, methodology, and/or understanding about the research problem or the study's application to practice was particularly important. 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., "Early research by Smith established important principles of good practice in the clinical evaluation of childhood trauma that informs new..."].
  • 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 important 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, it simply reinforces known understandings of the research problem. This should not be viewed necessarily as negative 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.
  • Cited by references listed in the first few years after the original study was published can have value as well. For example, these studies may highlight the initial interests and potential biases of scholars at the time, they can reflect a growing awareness of the need to critically examine the research problem, the studies can provide insight into the prevailing theories and ideas at the time, and the earliest published studies citing the original source can illuminate key intellectual struggles among scholars as they attempt to make sense of an emerging research problem. All or any of these factors can help contextualize the way in which you write about the background and history of a topic in the introduction or literature review sections of your paper.

Bornmann, Lutz and Hans‐Dieter Daniel. "What Do Citation Counts Measure? A Review of Studies on Citing Behavior." Journal of Documentation 64 (2008): 45-80; Hou, Jianhua and Da Ma. "How the High-Impact Papers Formed? A Study Using Data from Social Media and Citation." Scientometrics 125 (2020): 2597-2615; Leimu, Roosa and Julia Koricheva. "What Determines the Citation Frequency of Ecological Papers?" Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20 (2005): 28-32; Moed, Henk F. Citation Analysis in Research Evaluation. Information Science and Knowledge Management, vol. 9. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Science & Business Media, 2005; Nicolaisen, Jeppe. "Citation Analysis." Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 41 (2007): 609-641; Robinson, Larry M. and Roy Adler. "Measuring the Impact of Marketing Scholars and Institutions: An Analysis of Citation Frequency." Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 9 (1981): 147-162.

Resources for Tracking Citations

Databases/Search Engines

  • Communication Source -- use the "Cited References" search to find out how many times a specific article or author has been cited in the database.
  • CSA Illumina Databases (PsycINFO, COMM Abstracts, Linguistics & Language Behavior, Sociological Abstracts -- click on "advanced search" and choose the 'references' field from the drop-down menu.
  • Google Scholar -- search results that have been "cited by" reference followed by a linked number [i.e., cited by 53] indicate subsequent citations to the record. Note that rResults can be inconsistent.
  • HeinOnline -- includes a citation analysis tool which allows you to view the most cited law review articles. Search results include a "Cited by" link to a list of articles that cite that article or document.
  • JSTOR -- select "article locator" and search by author name and/or parts of the title. Click on the article title to see the number of times cited in the database (on the right). Most current publications not included.
  • Proquest Research Library -- click on "advanced search" and do a "Citation and Document Text Search." Find the author's name in footnotes by typing the author's last name.
  • Web of Knowledge -- select "Cited Reference Search" to find articles that cite the work(s) of an author. The database uses APA style of last name and first initial (e.g., Odell J*). Be sure to truncate the initial by adding an asterick after the letter (e.g., R*) to see a complete list of authors. The database does index more than the first author of an article.

Journal Publishers

  • Cambridge University Press -- there is no citation searching on this site per se, but you can enter name of full name of the author in "full text" text box to get results.
  • Elsevier ScienceDirect -- click the "Search tab. Enter the name of the author and choose "References" from the drop-down menu.
  • Sage Premier -- click on "advanced search" and select the "References" field from the drop-down box.
  • SpringerLink Journals -- there is no citation searching on this site per se, but you can enter name of full name of the author in "full text" text box to get results.
  • Wiley InterScience -- enter the name of the author and choose "References" from the drop-down menu.

Descriptions of resources are adapted or quoted from vendor websites.