Concentration of the most-cited papers in the scientific literature: analysis of journal ecosystems

PLoS One. 2006 Dec 20;1(1):e5. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000005.


Background: A minority of scientific journals publishes the majority of scientific papers and receives the majority of citations. The extent of concentration of the most influential articles is less well known.

Methods/principal findings: The 100 most-cited papers in the last decade in each of 21 scientific fields were analyzed; fields were considered as ecosystems and their "species" (journal) diversity was evaluated. Only 9% of journals in Journal Citation Reports had published at least one such paper. Among this 9%, half of them had published only one such paper. The number of journals that had published a larger number of most-cited papers decreased exponentially according to a Lotka law. Except for three scientific fields, six journals accounted for 53 to 94 of the 100 most-cited papers in their field. With increasing average number of citations per paper (citation density) in a scientific field, concentration of the most-cited papers in a few journals became even more prominent (p<0.001). Concentration was unrelated to the number of papers published or number of journals available in a scientific field. Multidisciplinary journals accounted for 24% of all most-cited papers, with large variability across fields. The concentration of most-cited papers in multidisciplinary journals was most prominent in fields with high citation density (correlation coefficient 0.70, p<0.001). Multidisciplinary journals had published fewer than eight of the 100 most-cited papers in eight scientific fields (none in two fields). Journals concentrating most-cited original articles often differed from those concentrating most-cited reviews. The concentration of the most-influential papers was stronger than the already prominent concentration of papers published and citations received.

Conclusions: Despite a plethora of available journals, the most influential papers are extremely concentrated in few journals, especially in fields with high citation density. Existing multidisciplinary journals publish selectively most-cited papers from fields with high citation density.

MeSH terms

  • Journal Impact Factor*
  • Periodicals as Topic* / statistics & numerical data
  • Science