On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growing Impact of Older Articles

Tuesday, November 4, 2014 | 9:15 AM

Next in the 10th anniversary series, we look at the impact of older articles, and at how it had changed over the last several decades. A significant increase in the rate of publication over this time period might lead one to expect a corresponding decrease in the fraction of citations to older articles. However, this trend is counteracted by increasingly broad availability of archival content, and by universal availability of comprehensive relevance-ranked search. Overall, we found that the impact of older articles had grown over 1990-2013, and that the growth had accelerated over the second half of this time period.  -- Alex Verstak


On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growing Impact of Older Articles


Alex Verstak, Anurag Acharya, Helder Suzuki, Sean Henderson, Mikhail Iakhiaev, Cliff Chiung Yu Lin, Namit Shetty

In this paper, we examine the evolution of the impact of older scholarly articles. We attempt to answer four questions. First, how often are older articles cited and how has this changed over time. Second, how does the impact of older articles vary across different research fields. Third, is the change in the impact of older articles accelerating or slowing down. Fourth, are these trends different for much older articles.

To answer these questions, we studied citations from articles published in 1990-2013. We computed the fraction of citations to older articles from articles published each year as the measure of impact. We considered articles that were published at least 10 years before the citing article as older articles. We computed these numbers for 261 subject categories and 9 broad areas of research. Finally, we repeated the computation for two other definitions of older articles, 15 years and older and 20 years and older.

There are three conclusions from our study. First, the impact of older articles has grown substantially over 1990-2013. In 2013, 36% of citations were to articles that are at least 10 years old; this fraction has grown 28% since 1990. The fraction of older citations increased over 1990-2013 for 7 out of 9 broad areas and 231 out of 261 subject categories. Second, the increase over the second half (2002-2013) was double the increase in the first half (1990-2001). Third, the trend of a growing impact of older articles also holds for even older articles. In 2013, 21% of citations were to articles >= 15 years old with an increase of 30% since 1990 and 13% of citations were to articles >= 20 years old with an increase of 36%.

Now that finding and reading relevant older articles is about as easy as finding and reading recently published articles, significant advances aren't getting lost on the shelves and are influencing work worldwide for years after.