Citation classics (articles receiving many more than the expected number of citations for their area) exist in all fields of research. Often marking technological or theoretical advances, they can stimulate a generation of researchers to make significant advances that might otherwise not have been possible. As such, they become highly cited and may persist for many years.

Tyge Payne

Tyge Payne

Why do researchers continue to return to these classic papers long after the initial wave of excitement has passed? Are they cited to formally acknowledge an intellectual debt or is it just the ‘done thing’ in the field?

Conceptual shorthand

Michael Jensen and William Meckling’s landmark 1976 paper, ‘Theory of the firm: Managerial behavior, agency costs and ownership structure’ (1), offered a unique synthesis of three existing theories (of agency, of property rights and of finance) to formulate a theory of the ownership structure of a firm. The article has been cited over 3,900 times since 1996 in journals on topics as diverse as business, management, accounting, economics, econometrics, finance, decision sciences and psychology, and its broad impact can be attributed to its inclusive scope and broad theoretical framework.

Associate Professor Tyge Payne at Rawls College of Business, Texas Tech University, cited this classic paper in two of his recent papers on management decision-making and performance (2, 3). Dr Payne notes that in doing so: “I was drawing on classic agency theory and, therefore, used Jensen and Meckling as a means of establishing that line of thinking.”

David Jones

David Jones

He continues: “For me, citation classics are a way of communicating certain ideas to the reader. It positions the reader in an established research stream and develops a measure of credibility without having to extensively develop a particular line of thinking.”

Acknowledging past achievements

Citation classics may offer methodological advances that subsequently become the standard or reference procedure for work in a given field – and sometimes beyond. Despite running to just six pages in length, James Murphy and John Riley’s 1962 article, ‘A modified single solution method for the determination of phosphate in natural waters’ (4), has been cited more than 4,200 times since 1996. As the authors stated in a 1986 column: “I suppose that this paper has been so extensively cited [because] it provides a simple, highly reproducible technique for the determination of microgram amounts of phosphate. Almost 25 years later, the method is still the recommended standard procedure for the analysis of fresh and potable waters, as well as seawater. Although it was originally developed for the analysis of phosphate in natural waters, it has been widely adopted in many other fields, including, for example, botany, zoology, biochemistry, geochemistry, metallurgy, and clinical medicine. Indeed, kits for the determination are available commercially for use in physiological investigations and water analysis.”

Professor David L. Jones at the School of the Environment and Natural Resources, Bangor University, Wales, has cited this paper three times this year (5, 6, 7). He says: “This is the definitive paper on measuring phosphorus in soil solution. Murphy and Riley published the method first, and it only seems fitting to acknowledge that achievement.”

Citation classics punctuate the scholarly landscape and mark waypoints in our development as a scientific society. But they are more than that: in the words of Eugene Garfield, who coined the term “citation classic” in 1977 (8), “this is the human side of science”.

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