I have often seen in review papers in which the author mentions that there are more than # number of publications in the subject, to highlight the importance of the subject.

How are such numbers determined? While searching for certain keywords in websites such as Scopus or ScienceDirect may be useful, it does not necessarily give an accurate number, as some publications may mention the keywords but not actually deal with the subject, while others may use synonyms of the keywords.

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    Roll 3d20 and multiply by 50 :) I think that would give you a number just as useful as any other method; i.e. impressing the reader while meaning nothing at all. Jun 25 '13 at 1:36

First, I would argue that a precise number would be virtually impossible to obtain. This is because there is a large grey-zone between work published in established journals and work "published" in more "questionable" sources. Obviously the way to obtain a number would be to use search services such as Web of Science, Scopus etc. or reference data bases. But, for example, Web of Science only covers works published in ISI listed journals or papers referenced by ISI listed papers and on top of that only back in time for as long as journals have submitted reference information. This means such searches will be incomplete. Hence to arrive at a number may require quite a bit of work unless one would state the limitations imposed on a search sich as limting it to Web of science.

The choice of key word(s) will also be important and it is not certain keywords are systematically applied between sources or over time.

A claim to have found "all" literature is very questionable and I would argue that when one makes such a claim one must provide a picture of the limitations of the search because there will certainly always be such limitations.


In medical/life sciences, the situation is slightly better than in other fields since indexing in PubMed is the standard for a manuscript to be considered a "real" publication. I suspect that in life sciences, stating that there are more than x publications on a subject means counting the number of hits found when searching for that term on PubMed.


I agree with @Peter answer.
Moreover, I really doubt this relation of more publications = more importance.
Actually, I see it very weird information in my field (Computer Science) regardless of its source.

To show the importance of a subject, refer to some main papers/findings in that subject, show how and why its important to the general audience of your field. For example, in Computer Science, this can be done through listing some applications/real world scenarios of the subject.


In my field (mathematics) this can become even more questionable because there are papers that consider related problems, papers that consider problems that are essentially equivalent with a different terminology, and so on. The issue of different terminology is especially troublesome because you cannot search for consistent keywords.

Nevertheless this is an important metric. In mathematics you typically cannot point to real-world applications (any way, that is not the kind of importance you necessarily want for your paper). But it can provide context that the problem you are studying has been analyzed before, it gives you some other results that you can compare your paper to, and so on.

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