Nature Cell Biology encourages citation to primary research

Citations are an important component in the assessment of academic performance. Yet the growing literature, combined with format constraints of journals, encourage citation of reviews in preference to primary research. This diverts academic credit from the discoverer. (From the January Editorial of Nature Cell Biology 11, 1; 2009, free to access online)

This Editorial notes that of the research articles in the journal’s previous issue, one-quarter of the citations were to reviews. Authors tend to cite reviews because of the print constraints of most journals, hence citing reviews often allows an author to use one citation to cite a group of primary research papers. Further, as Nature Cell Biology points out, “ISI (Thomson Scientific) continues to lump together citations of primary research papers and reviews. This has had a major impact on researchers and indeed journals: it boosts cumulative citations of the former, while providing papers that tend to be well-cited for the latter to beef up journal impact factors. ”">We have argued previously for a disambiguation of primary and review citations.

An additional consideration is that in the current highly competitive world of cell biology, some researchers may be tempted to obfuscate the state of the field to enhance the apparent conceptual advance provided by their study. Rather than omitting a citation altogether, a less onerous approach may be to support a vague statement by citing a general review."

Nature Cell Biology is addressing these issues by increasing the reference limits in papers by 40%. Authors can now cite up to 70 references, rather than 50, in Articles; 40 instead of 30 in Letters, and 20 in Brief Communications. The journal strongly encourages authors to cite the primary literature where appropriate. Reviews are the only effective way to provide background information on whole fields or more focused topics with a considerable literature, but citations to the primary literature are essential for referring to specific findings.

See a related announcement in The EMBO Journal.


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