Citations and the Academic Career
Citations have become virtually essential for a successful academic or scientific career. All the research, analysis and writing that go into creating excellent scholarship might even seem, in some contexts, to exist for little purpose beyond earning the citation counts that can lead to employment, promotions, funding and even enormous bonuses. It is important to keep in mind, however, that no matter how large a part citation counts may play in today’s academic and scientific careers, they remain only one aspect of conducting and disseminating research and cannot be a thorough measure of the influence of a scholarly document.

Citation counts can certainly be useful for registering influence, but there are serious limitations to the information they provide. One citation, for instance, might be due to your article being included in a cluster of parenthetical references, but never actually discussed by the author, while another records an instance of your recommendations being seriously considered by another scholar and used when he or she designs the methodology for a new research project. These are very different kinds of citation and indicate very different kinds of influence, yet they might simply be counted as two equivalent citations. Similarly, having your research results cited as confirmation of similar results is not at all the same as being cited because more recent research has proven your results suspect or incorrect. This is to say that how your work is used in the writing of other scholars may matter as much as if not more than whether your research was cited at all, and it is important to keep this in mind when you are assessing the attention your writing is garnering.

Another concern is when you are cited. The importance of being cited almost immediately after publication in order to earn a high citation count and end up with what amounts to a scholarly bestseller is a common argument and there is certainly some truth in it. However, in some disciplines and fields citations mount up much more slowly than in others (in the humanities, for instance, citations tend to be far slower in coming than in the sciences), and it is important to remember that impatience is a dominant characteristic of societies where so much is available virtually immediately at the touch of a single finger. My point here is that there is a great deal to be said for the longevity of sound and informative scholarship. The most fashionable and sensational concepts and results may easily earn publication and a barrage of early citations, but they are not necessarily the concepts and results that last and prove truest over time as further research broadens knowledge. Serious advances in human understanding attained through carefully conducted and accurately reported research may take a while to sink in and earn acceptance, but they are the true substance of a successful scholarly career. Such work will be cited over many years, and the scholar who produces a large body of scholarship based on such principles will ultimately be cited more frequently and more widely.

Of course, if such a dedicated scholar happens to produce that academic or scientific bestseller one day, all the other research he or she has disseminated will be cited far more often as well, and then that popular piece will not be viewed as a singularity, but as the natural and well-deserved result of a productive and prestigious career. Perhaps it will only be then that the leading authority in your subject area seriously considers your research and cites some of it, but if he or she happens to benefit from your work or confirm its value, that influence will be welcome whether it happens one or five or ten years down the road. It is therefore wise to keep in mind that even the voice that begins very quietly can whisper truths that reverberate and echo through the decades.