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Review articles generally receive more citations compared to original research articles.

In my mind, it should be the other way around, as journal guidelines generally solicit researchers to cite original research articles rather than review articles. So reviews should only be cited after their original content, which tends to be a small fraction of their total content, while the largest part of it consists of paraphrasing and citing research articles.

Therefore, I would venture to believe that reviews receive more citations because the rule I mentioned previously is generally not followed; and that authors usually cite reviews to avoid taking time to search for original articles (which I have to admit can be exhausting, and extremely time-consuming).

Can someone corroborate if this is the case, or am I missing something? Thanks!

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    That's not always true, but your conclusion is probably right. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 17 at 16:53
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    At least in my field, review articles are much more readable than research articles! (And I mean "readable" in all possible senses, including as a euphemism for "correct".) – darij grinberg Aug 17 at 16:58
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    You neglect that review articles cover a larger field. When discussing something, I might cite the original articles and a review that puts them in context. Others will do the same, but as they are interested in different things in the same subfield, they will cite different original articles, yet they will cite the same review to put them into context. This will naturally put the review ahead in number of citations. – mlk Aug 17 at 17:08
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    The problem isn't with the citation counts, but with the fact that credit is given based on citation counts, which are a terrible statistic, among other things due to the reason you've brought up. – einpoklum Aug 18 at 6:54
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    One thing not mentioned in the answers is that citing a good review article is often just a nice thing to do, for the reader: you're telling them where they can get a well-written overview of a topic, which can help them put your work into context. That shouldn't be overlooked as a reason for doing it! – Nathaniel Aug 19 at 6:23
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I don't recall ever being told, by journal guidelines or by an editor, that I should always cite the original paper instead of a review. The review would usually contain citations of the original publications.

A review can be cited as a single source for lots of facts, especially in the "introduction" or "background" sections of a paper. So it's likely to be more useful for the reader. A good review is also likely to be easier for many readers to understand than the original paper. And the review might be where I originally learned the information I need. Finally, a review is likely to use uniform notation that I can adopt, whereas the original papers are more likely to have diverging notation, which may make it difficult for readers to compare them with my paper and with each other.

I've often written things like "see [review] and the references there"; no one has yet complained.

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    @mellamoleon mathematics – Andreas Blass Aug 17 at 22:26
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    @mellamoleon "journals usually ask for original articles to be cited, rather than review articles" <-- Can you link to such a guideline from a prominent journal in your field? You keep claiming this, but have not yet shown any evidence. I am curious to see such a guideline, as in my field it would seem very strange to require this. – Szabolcs Aug 18 at 8:44
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    Thanks for your response Szabolcs. As an example would be the guidelines of the EMBO journal, which are the first ones that appeared in my google search results: "Comprehensive and accurate citation of the relevant literature is essential. We require citation of the primary literature wherever appropriate". embopress.org/page/journal/14602075/authorguide#citationpolicy. Let me know if you need more examples. – mellamoleon Aug 18 at 17:51
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    Also, see the following article "On Citing Well" published in Nature Magazine: "Finally, more prominent citation of review articles, instead of original research papers, can obscure or bias the connectivity of the scientific literature (Nat. Cell Biol. 11, 1, 2009). Though review articles are appropriately used as overview citations for broad scientific topics or ideas, most citations, especially those focusing on previously published concepts or results, should be of original research papers". nature.com/articles/nchembio.310. – mellamoleon Aug 18 at 17:58
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    Despite working in the biomedical field, I was also surprised to hear that journals might advise against citing reviews. Even looking at the Nat Chem Biol and Nat Cell Biol guidelines for authors, I do not see any suggestions similar to their 2009 paper. I believe this "rule" is much more rare than @mellamoleon suggests, although I see that it is stated in some places. – juod Aug 18 at 21:36
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Many papers have background that touches on enough different areas that citing all the original research in those areas would quickly balloon a paper to thousands of references. Therefore, it's common practice to cite authoritative reviews, plus specific individual papers of the highest relevance.

The direction to:

cite original research articles rather than review articles

...only applies when you are discussing specific findings. If you are referring to Alice's paper, you should cite Alice, not Bob's review of several papers including Alice's. If you are referring to a whole area of research that has been nicely summarized by Bob and includes papers by Alice, Jane, Jesse and Richard, you can (and should!) cite Bob.

If anything, it's a form of plagiarism of Bob if you were to read Bob's review, find that Bob has collected papers from Alice, Jane, Jesse, and Richard, and cite those papers rather than Bob (it would be okay to cite Bob plus the others if they are sufficiently important; if I do this I make clear that the citations were found via Bob, even if I'm familiar with the other papers individually as well). Collecting papers in a review is an intellectual endeavor that deserves citation.

I think the general claim that review articles are cited more frequently than original research is false, but I don't have great data to support that besides my own papers: reviews make up a minority of citations in a single paper.

However, my impression is that there are a handful of very highly cited reviews, often by respected researchers in particular fields, and also lots of reviews that are hardly cited at all. Those highly respected reviews collect citations from a very broad area of research and their citation counts balloon well over that of any individual paper in the same broad area.

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    @mellamoleon Primarily neuroscience, I also publish in public health and anesthesiology. – Bryan Krause Aug 18 at 1:39
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    @mellamoleon Something like a parenthetical (reviewed in Bob et al, 2020). – Bryan Krause Aug 18 at 14:57
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    "…it's a form of plagiarism…". I disagree with that. Perhaps you use the word "plagiarism" too loosely. I consider plagiarism to be a very serious charge (it is a type of lie) and do not think that what you described merits that serious label. Just because the review authors would like to be cited does not make it plagiarism to bypass them and cite the original source that the review authors got their material from. On the contrary, as OP said, some people consider it inappropriate or even unethical to cite the review author rather than the original source. (I disagree with that, too, though.) – Tripartio Aug 18 at 15:16
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    @Tripartio For one source, no. But if a review says "watermelons are pink inside" and cites several sources investigating watermelon color, and you cite those same sources for the same purpose because you found them in the review, it's not okay to fail to cite the review. They did the work to compile the sources. Copying that work is plagiarism. It's not because the review authors "like to be cited" it's because it's the ethically honest thing to do. – Bryan Krause Aug 18 at 15:45
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    @Tripartio For an extreme example, consider Table I in Stanisław Radziszowski's survey on small Ramsey numbers. This contains all values of R(k,l) for k≤10 and l≤15, with citations to over 36 different papers, which I imagine required looking at maybe ten times as many papers to find the best upper and lower bounds among them. Don't you think that if I copied that table word for word, keeping the individual citations for each cell but giving no credit to the survey, that I would be committing grievous plagiarism? – Misha Lavrov Aug 19 at 0:31
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You should ask yourself, what is the purpose of a citation?

I read your perspective as: the purpose is to award credit (like "points") to research that originated an idea.

That is one of the purposes, but there are others. An important purpose is giving the reader a reference for a claim or statement, so they can go learn more about it. Review articles are generally better for this.

Another purpose is to establish credibility for a claim or statement. If I write "researchers generally consider approach A more promising", then a review article demonstrating this has more credibility than an opinion expressed in one research paper.

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    Yes, I think many journals (at least in my field of research) prefer original articles to be cited for two additional reasons: 1) because it is common for review articles to misinterpret original data and 2) to make it easier for readers to identify the original article (if one review cites another review, and so on, it becomes very difficult to find the original article). But like you said, it appears as if an important reason behind this is to give "credit points" to the original research authors. – mellamoleon Aug 18 at 4:12
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    In my opinion, it would be best, to give credit to both the review authors (in which the original research was cited, summarized or discussed), as well as to the original research authors, as they both deserve credit. – mellamoleon Aug 18 at 4:14
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I agree with the previous posts, but would add that there are a few additional aspects of reviews that merit high citation counts:

  • Most researchers start by reading a review when getting into a new topic. Since reviews are "introductory material", naturally, many people have read them and therefore many people are likely to cite them.
  • A review has a broader audience than a research article since it may cover e.g. five subfields instead of a specific question in one subfield. Therefore many different types of people can use them, relative to an article which has a narrower focus.
  • Reviews bring value in and of themselves. For example, they might outline the history of a research area; they might compare and contrast different articles' view points; or they might point to key areas for future work. These are independent contributions in and of themselves and should be cited as such.

As you note, it is easier to cite a review than read sub-articles, but I don't think that's the primary reason. If I am just using content from a single article, then I would cite the original article and not the review.

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    Review articles are generally quite broad, thus a review article intersects more than once with your own work. However, I personally try to cite primary sources as well as reviews. Thus, if I discuss aspects of say Method X, then a review article on Method X is handy to cite from. If I discuss Aspect Y of Method X, then I might cite the review article on Method X as well as the original paper on Aspect Y. – Dohn Joe Aug 20 at 11:19
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So reviews should only be cited after their original content, which tends to be a small fraction of their total content, while the largest part of it consists of paraphrasing and citing research articles.

The original and defining content of a review is the review work itself, that is the comparison of the knowledge record about a topic. It is a lot of scientific work. A review article is like the embryonic form of a book.

Conversely, too many "original" research articles fail to link their content to the state of the art. I am not surprised any longer of finding that the literature review in the introductions is just name dropping: I often go and browse the cited papers only not to find any supporting information to the citing paper. And, incidentally, when I review papers in the sense of peer reviewing, I always look through at least some of the articles the authors have cited. Disappointing incidents happened to me even for work published by associate editors.

Anyhow, the attribution original for any standard publication is possibly a name of convenience and creates a false dichotomy: you could call it incremental research for example. (I have seen now that Elsevier calls them "regular articles").

The point I cherish is that one should only cite what one has read, preferably perused, preferably not just glanced at. As a reader I want to know what you considered to build your arguments. If you read a review article and are happy about the comparison and conclusions drawn there, cite it. If you went further and looked into some other publication, whether or not cited in the review, cite that.

About reading papers and the fact that it

can be exhausting, and extremely time-consuming

I do concur. This is particularly true of badly written papers, that is for which authors have not taken sufficient time for writing well, beside that for reading well, but that's another story.

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    I've mostly heard the term "incremenatal research" used with a negative connotation: to mean the novelty is too small, or is it just a work applying A to B, and generally to signify a paper of low originality."Step change" on the other hand is supposed to be a major change – penelope Aug 20 at 7:52
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    @penelope Thanks for this remark: I will avoid using it in grant proposals :-) Of course it does not escape us that there is nothing semantically wrong with incremental research: standing on the shoulders of giants is incremental height. I am hopeful of a revival of the appreciation of incremental research: there is no breakthrough, there is no new ordering of ideas, rather establishing whether certain consequences can be sustained based on what we already knew. I guess that a great deal of the so-called study cases, widely published, belong to this progressive accrual of confidence. – XavierStuvw Aug 20 at 8:30
  • I am actually also quite fond of finding clever ways of putting things together. I find that there's far too little integration between theory and application, and many different related fields. But everybody is making a point not to make your research sound incremental in grant proposals – penelope Aug 20 at 12:51
  • @penelope I would then call it integrative research. Good contribution, thanks – XavierStuvw Aug 20 at 14:23

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