If you tried to guess off the top of your head what the most influential science papers of all time have been, you might think of things like Einstein showing that E = mc2 or Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA.
But when the journal Nature pulled together a top list from the roughly 58-million-strong Science Citation Index, that's not what they found at all.
When they counted how many times each paper had been cited by other papers, they found that the top 100 articles on the list often didn't describe new discoveries. They described new scientific methods:
Some of the stuff that you'd think would be in the top 100 didn't make the cut. For example, James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA won a Nobel Prize and is arguably one of the most important discoveries of the past century. But the paper? It's only been cited 5,207 times, not enough to even make it into the top 100.
And the discovery of the ozone hole — hugely important for environmental science — is languishing down at 1,871 citations.
Papers on technical methods are the most commonly cited
What did make the cut are generally less glamorous but no less important papers about technical methods. That includes papers on things like how to measure the amount of protein in a solution (#1 and #3), how to determine the sequence of DNA code (#4), and two theoretical chemistry papers that help with computer modeling (#7 and #8).
These papers have become the everyday tools that scientists use all around the world. They're the basis of the techniques that make everything else possible.
And the fact that they made the top actually does make some kind of sense. It's important for scientists to communicate not just what they found but how they did it. That's because the ultimate test for a scientific result is whether someone else can repeat it somewhere else. So a proper scientific paper should provide all the information necessary for someone else to follow their steps exactly, and references to these fundamental methods seem to be serving that purpose.
Richard Van Noorden, Brendan Maher, and Regina Nuzzo, whose story in Nature includes this graphic, also provide some conjectures about why some famous scientific results don't get cited nearly as much: "Another common practice in science ensures that truly foundational discoveries — Einstein's special theory of relativity, for instance — get fewer citations than they might deserve: they are so important that they quickly enter the textbooks or are incorporated into the main text of papers as terms deemed so familiar that they do not need a citation."
Almost half of all papers have never been cited at all
The chart also has some other interesting trends. Almost half these papers are terribly lonely and have never been cited by anyone. That's pretty incredible.
And there are also some caveats. When looking at rankings like this, it's also important to remember that this is just one way to examine a given paper's influence. And it's not a perfect measure. For example, biologists tend to cite each other's work a lot, which may have helped biology papers rise to the top. But that doesn't mean that biology is more important or influential than, say, physics.
The top 100 list was compiled by counting the number of times a journal's papers have been mentioned in other papers in Thomson Reuters' Science Citation Index, which can be found online at Web of Science. You can see the full list of 100 with Nature's story.