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July 20, 2012


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Ralph D. Clifford

Counting citations is fine, but it misses the mark significantly in measuring an article's impact. Three examples:

1. For the piece on which I am currently working, I will cite to a small handful of articles, but I have read many additional articles that will not be cited. Law articles don't provide a bibliography of sources consulted (and maybe they should); instead, we cite to authorities that support or contradict our statements, particularly if they are written by our friends or by scholars we respect. For my article, I read many articles on patent law’s inequitable conduct doctrine as it parallels the ethical issues I’m discussing, but will not include these in my paper as that is not what my paper presents. Counting citations will understate the importance of these background articles.

2. Counting citations, unless done with great care, also doesn’t capture the importance of the citation itself. If an article is cited with a “cf.” or “see also,” its importance is being minimized. If, on the other hand, the author of the second piece quotes extensively from the first and spends time in the article itself discussing the article, its importance is higher.

3. Citations in other journal articles also misses the impact an article might have outside of the next scholar’s article. Sometimes, our articles are influential in the broader world of thought and may be cited in books and casebooks, the general media, or various blogs including this one. Additionally, counting citations does not measure the increasing importance of SSRN as a mechanism of distribution. All of these also demonstrate the importance of the article.


I tend to agree with Ralph's second observation above, namely that the nature of the citation matters perhaps more than simply its existence in the paper's notes. (I am reminded of a similar phenomenon in case law, where certain cases are repeatedly cited for a clear framing of a black-letter principle rather than the facts and specific analysis of the case itself - raising their profiles among those who look at Lexis/Westlaw citation records but missing the real impact the case ruling had on subsequent courts.) It would be a huge (perhaps even prohibitively so) undertaking to read through the hundreds of articles each publishing cycle and manage the cross-references to the original work. As a gut feeling, it seems the "fair" option - though of course fair doesn't always count for much when it comes to the practicalities.

I'd be interested to hear how others feel about handling speciality law review journals. While perhaps not as prominent in the general scholarly community, articles in these publications may have tremendous influence in their area even without a high number of citations as compared to a piece published in a general journal. Should these journals be somehow separately ranked? Likely there are often not enough in each speciality to make ranking as much of an issue, but the question still remains as an author: how to handle submission offers? If one is fortunate enough to get an offer of publication from a speciality journal as well as one from a mid-ranked general journal, what would be the strategic calculus? Citations alone might be hard to use as a benchmark of prestige for the journal - or the level of the influence of the author. Thoughts?

Finally, might there also be a danger of a feedback loop when it comes to ranking journals? Elite journals receive and publish work from the most regarded scholars in the field, in turn raising their citation statistics and reinforcing their elite status, which brings back those same scholars to start the loop again. If we rely on cite counts, unless a journal is already in the Top 10 or 20 (say) it seems to face huge hurdles to break through its current tier by getting the necessary citations.

Jeffrey Harrison

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