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Venerable Papers: Ten Classic Articles Over 50 Years Old

By David Pendelbury

When considered today, most papers written prior to 1940 - when the structure of DNA was not yet known, and even before DNA was shown to be the medium of genetic inheritance - seem relics from science's "antediluvian" period. In the past 50 years, there has been a flood of discoveries in virtually every field of science, and as the pace of research accelerates, papers are aging ever more rapidly.

A few of the old papers, however, have managed to live on long past their prime, proving useful to researchers after others of the same generation have faded into obscurity. Indeed, some papers more than a half﷓century old are still being cited with significant frequency, and The Scientist has reviewed data from the Institute for Scientific Information's Science Citation Index (SCI), 1945-88, to identify the most-cited among them. The top 10 venerable papers are listed in the accompanying table. 

This august group is, not surprisingly, dominated by methods papers. . These papers exhibited an exceptional citation impact over many decades.The late Hans A. Krebs, Nobel laureate and author of the fourth-ranking paper in the table, observed in 1980 that "the frequent quotation of methods papers unequivocally demonstrates the usefulness of such papers." . In large measure, citations to these venerable papers do, in fact, reflect utility and impact.

. The least cited among them (No. 10) is the 211th most-cited paper for the period 1945-88, according to the SCI. The firstranking item in the table is the eighth most-cited paper over this same period. (The most-cited paper of all is Oliver H. Lowry's description of a method for measuring protein, published in 1951. It has now collected more than 206,000 citations, about 8,000 of them in 1988. It is remarkable that approximately 5% of the most-cited papers of the post-Word War II era (10 of 211) were published before 1940.

All 10 papers achieved their peak annual citation rate after 1960: Three hit citation highs in the 1960s (No. 9 in 1962, No. 8 in 1967, and No. 3 in 1968), five in the 1970s (No. 2 in 1971. No. 1, No. 6, and No. 10 in 1975; No. 5 in 1978), and two in the 1980s (No. 4 in 1980 and No. 7 in 1983). To some degree this reflects the larger population of researchers at work in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 1940s and 1950s, but it does demonstrate that these papers were being heavily cited 20 years and more after their appearance.

It is also worth noting that four of the 10 papers were cited more than 100 times in 1988 (No. 1 through No. 4), and that the paper by Fiske and SubbaRow received 305 explicit citations in 1988.

That 1925 paper describes an improved and simple method for measuring phosphorus in blood and urine. So widely used was it that it became known as the 'Fiske-SubbaRow method." In 1959, Grant B. Bartlett introduced a modification of the FiskeSubbaRow procedure that, he reported, gave a several-fold increase in sensitivity and greater color stability (G.R. Bartlett, "Phosphorous assay in column chromatography," J. Biol. Chem., 234:466-8, 1959). Many scientists, however, continued to cite the Fiske-SubbaRow paper.

Old dogs, it seems, did not want to learn a new trick. It was not until 1982 (in other words, a generation later) that citations to Bartlett's paper finally outpaced those to Fiske and SubbaRow's, and then by only two citations (502 versus 500). Since then, Bartlett's paper has pulled ahead. In 1988 it collected 370 citations, 65 more than the Fiske-SubbaRow paper.

(excerpts from The Scientist 4[2]14, Jan. 20, 1990)


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