Nature News article took that finding and suggested that researchers might improve their citation rate by including more references in their papers. Such strategies rarely work because the observed relationship may not be due to cause and effect and, in any case, reflects statistical outcomes involving thousands of papers.
So what does work? In this post, I'll be talking about some strategies that are more likely to attract attention to your publications and that simultaneously provide other benefits.
Why Worry About Citations?
But first, some of you may be wondering why anyone would worry about how many citations they have. Citations provide an indication, along with other metrics such as the h-index, about what impact your work has on your field of science. Citations are important because most search committees and tenure review panels use citation information (e.g., in Thompson-Reuter's ISI Web of Science or Google Scholar Citations) to assess a candidate's credentials and potential for success. Whether you like it or not, think citation metrics are valid or not, they will likely be used at some point in your science career to assess your qualifications for a future job or promotion. Not knowing your citation rate or h-index is like a student not knowing their GPA. Without that information, you have no way of gauging how you stack up against the competition or how much you may need to improve.
As long as review panels emphasize such metrics, we will have to be at least cognizant of, if not proactive about, our citations. Being proactive does not mean trying to "game" the system, as some of the bibliometric studies seem to suggest. Instead, it's much better to seek valid ways to promote the visibility of your work, which will lead people to your publications and hopefully to cite them. I'm going to take the results of one of these bibliometric studies and show how you can take the concept and apply it in a more useful way to promote your work.
Some evidence suggests that open-access papers garner more citations than papers requiring a subscription to access. The implication is that when more people can easily acquire and read your paper, the more likely they are to cite something in that paper. However, many scientists lack the funds to pay for open-access for all their publications. Some may think that a less expensive option is to offer their papers as pdfs on their personal websites. There are two problems with this option. First is that it's unlikely that your website (and your papers) will show up on the first page of an internet search of your topic of research, unless you are working in a really obscure field. Second, and more importantly, unless you have the journal publisher's permission, posting pdfs of your published papers on your website is copyright infringement. When you signed that copyright agreement with the publisher of the journal, you gave over that right to the publisher.
Is there anything else you can do to attract attention to your papers, perhaps increasing citations of your work? The answer is yes. Some people post the unformatted manuscript version on their own website or in an article repository. Through these versions, others can access the content of the work without paying the subscription fee to the journal. However, there is another way, which is the topic of this post.
A Better Idea
You can create an attractive, informative, and interesting brief, which describes the essence of a paper, along with some key photographs or other images. The image above illustrates an example of a template I've used to create a one-page brief for a number of my past publications. I used Pages, which is an Apple application, to create this template, but PC users can use Microsoft Publisher or a similar program. These applications have a number of templates to choose from and come in a range of visually pleasing designs. They are very easy to use and to modify for your purposes. They can be one pagers or more, but generally shorter is better.
The briefs that I've created for my publications typically contain the abstract or a summary of the paper along with a sentence or two stating the take-home message plus several photographs or figures. Note that it's important not to use any graphs or other figures from the published paper unless you get permission from the publisher. However, I've found it easy to pick one of the many unpublished photos or other images from my media library to illustrate my briefs. Most journals will allow an author to post the abstract of a paper on their website because these are usually publicly available anyway (as long as you provide the journal citation along with the abstract). So adding the abstract to your brief is usually acceptable (however, if you are not the author, using an abstract this way is not advisable). If you think using the abstract verbatim might be challenged by a publisher or is just too technical, then it's relatively easy to write another, less technical summary. Within the brief, I provide the citation information and create a hyperlink to the journal page where the full paper is published. I also include links to my websites and my email address where someone can contact me for a reprint of the technical paper.
Click on the above image to see the additional instructions for creating a brief with this template.
You may be thinking that this is a lot of effort that takes too much time. However, I found that once I created the template, that I could complete a research brief in five to ten minutes, depending on how long it took me to find appropriate photographs. The process involved four steps:
1. I find three photographs to illustrate the paper (you might choose to show only one photo). I have an extensive media library of photographs I've accrued over the past 40 years, so there's no problem with choices. I usually only need to modify the size of the image so that the brief is not too large. Then, the images can be dragged and dropped into the photo placeholders. This takes only a few minutes.
2. I add the paper title, authors, and journal citation in the appropriate places (along with the hyperlink). A couple of minutes.
3. I copy and paste the paper's abstract into the main text box and resize to fit. Another minute or two.
4. I then think of a sentence or two to summarize the significance of the work or the take-home message and type that into the appropriate text box. That may take a few minutes.
And that's it.
Once the brief is finished, it can be exported as a pdf or jpg, which can then be posted on a personal website. I've created briefs for around twenty of my recent publications and posted these on my professional profile website. On the webpage where my publications are listed, I've put a thumbnail of the research brief alongside the relevant citation. When the viewer clicks on the thumbnail, the brief opens up in a high resolution image that can be read online. I also provide a link that allows the brief to be downloaded as a pdf.
What Are the Advantages?
The beauty of this approach is that images or pdfs (as opposed to text) can get your brief listed higher on a search engine ranking. For example, if there are a lot of text-based listings for the topic of your research, your paper is likely listed on page 41 of a Google search. On the other hand, if there are no or only a few images associated with your research topic, then your brief (posted as a jpg file) will more likely show up on the Google Image page.
Even if you don't want to go to the effort of creating a research brief for every one of your journal articles, just posting a thumbnail photo alongside each text citation will get your work noticed by search engines looking for images about a topic. You want to be sure, however, to include appropriate keywords in the file name as well as any other tags or alternate titles associated with that image so that Google can associate it with you and your research.
Another idea is to post an image of a conference poster, which offers similar information as your publication, but in a non-copyrighted format. You can create a one-page flyer, similar to the ones people often offer as poster take-aways, and add it as a thumbnail image next to the journal citation in your publication list. Because it is visual and clickable, people will have immediate access to the key information that is in the journal publication. Again, you want to include somewhere on the poster image a link to the journal article, your professional website, and email address.
By the way, videos about your research are very effective in getting a high ranking by search engines, especially when your topic has mostly text-based listings. I've created and posted several videos about my research on YouTube and professional multimedia galleries. When a search is conducted for the topic of my research, the Web listings do not include links to any of my technical papers on the first page, but the only videos listed on the topic are mine and show up on the first page of a Google search. So anyone (especially students) searching for information on the topic of my research will see the link to my video, likely click on it (because it is visual and potentially interesting), and ultimately be led to my technical papers, which are listed at the end of the video and in the text description accompanying the video. On my webpage listing of publications, I have a link to these videos alongside those relevant citations. At this point, so few scientists use videos to describe their work, that this strategy will put you in a league of your own.
The feedback I've gotten, especially from students, is that they really like these one-page summaries and videos. They bring the dry, sometimes esoteric, information in the technical paper alive. The photos and video footage appeal to the current generation of students who are accustomed to acquiring their information from audiovisual media. They obviously appeal also to visual learners and to those students and scientists in other fields who want to know more about a topic, but not enough to read the technical paper.
So in addition to making your publications more visible to those likely to cite it, this approach will also help you reach a broader audience. Explaining your research in a way that is interesting and understandable by non-technical audiences will help promote the value of science to the general public and to familiarize the public with the scientists behind the research.
Another advantage of developing audiovisual communication products to accompany your technical articles is that they can fulfill the "broader impacts" criterion required by some funding agencies (e.g., NSF). In addition to having a clear plan to address the "broader impacts" criterion, successful proposals include evidence that the PI has previously developed materials that, for example, explain the significance of their work to broader audiences such as the general public or policymakers. Having created semi- or non-technical fact sheets, podcasts, interactive graphics, and videos to explain your technical work shows review panels that you have the capability of meeting the broader impacts criterion. I'll talk more about this aspect in future posts.