Papers: Ten Classic Articles Over 50 Years Old
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
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 halfcentury 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
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.
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
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 414, Jan. 20, 1990)