Large-scale analysis of micro-level citation patterns reveals nuanced selection criteria

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The analysis of citations to scientific publications has become a tool that is used in the evaluation of a researcher’s work; especially in the face of an ever-increasing production volume1,2,3,4,5,6. Despite the acknowledged shortcomings of citation analysis and the ongoing debate on the meaning of citations7,8, citations are still primarily viewed as endorsements and as indicators of the influence of the cited reference, regardless of the context of the citation. However, only recently has attention9,10 been given to the connection between contextual information and the success of citing and cited papers, primarily because of the lack of extensive databases that cover both types of metadata. Here we address this issue by studying the usage of citations throughout the full text of 156,558 articles published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), and by tracing their bibliometric history from among 60 million records obtained from the Web of Science. We find universal patterns of variation in the usage of citations across paper sections11. Notably, we find differences in microlevel citation patterns that were dependent on the ultimate impact of the citing paper itself; publications from high-impact groups tend to cite younger references, as well as more very young and better-cited references. Our study provides a quantitative approach to addressing the long-standing issue that not all citations count the same.

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Fig. 1: References vary in age and impact according to the section in which they are cited.
Fig. 2: The number of references used in each section is mostly independent of the paper’s impact group, although authors of highly cited PLoS papers cite younger references and use a higher percentage of young references.
Fig. 3: Authors of highly cited PLoS papers cite more highly cited references, especially in the case of young references.
Fig. 4: Highly cited papers have a higher-than-expected probability of citing highly cited references, and a lower-than-expected probability of citing poorly cited references.

Data availability

The data from PLoS are publicly available through its API (, the data from the Web of Science are available from Clarivate Analytics. We provide the conversion tables to link the DOIs of the PLoS papers used in this study, and the Web of Science unique IDs (of both the PLoS papers and the references they cite) here:

Code availability

Code for replication of all of our results is available via GitHub:


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L.A.N.A. thanks the John and Leslie McQuown Gift and support from the Department of Defense Army Research Office under grant number W911NF-14-1-0259. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

J.P.-C. contributed to the data preparation, wrote the codes for data analysis, statistical testing and figure plotting, contributed to the interpretation of the results and drafted the manuscript. N.A. collected, cleaned and prepared the data and performed preliminary analysis. M.G. contributed to the collection and the analysis of the data, contributed to the interpretation of the results and drafted the manuscript. L.A.N.A. conceived and designed the study, contributed to the interpretation of the results and drafted the manuscript.

Correspondence to Luís A. N. Amaral.

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Supplementary Methods 1–3, Supplementary Figs. 1–35, and Supplementary Tables 1–6.

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