What is a Highly Cited Article?

What is a Highly Cited Article?

Published on:
Jan 31, 2022
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If you’re in the medical science or research world, you know that finding credible and impactful sources is incredibly important to getting the information you need. That’s where HCAs come in.

HCAs, or highly cited articles, are a way to measure the impact of a medical publication. This is measured by how many times other journals or conference papers use an article in their own publication.

In this piece, we’ll explore what an HCA actually is, the pros and cons of an HCA, and how to find an HCA when doing research. Whether you’re curious about the best way to find highly cited articles or are wondering how to get more visibility on your own papers or publications, keep reading to learn more.

What is an HCA?

As we mentioned previously, highly cited articles are a way to measure the impact of a medical publication. The impact is measured by how many times other journals or conference papers use a particular article in their own publication.

Highly cited articles are papers that perform in the top one percent based on the number of citations received when compared to: 1) other papers published in the same field, and 2) other papers published in the same year.

Generally speaking, citations tend to peak in the second through fourth year after publication, but there are exceptions to this rule. Some papers continue to be cited for many years—and a few papers are even recognized much later on. 

These patterns can depend on several factors, including the type of paper, the field, and the nature of the finding(s) reported in the publication. For example, articles reporting new discoveries can quickly rise to the top and then just as quickly fall into obscurity as the discovery is further explored or elaborated on in other articles. Conversely, articles reporting methods or techniques for research can slowly increase in citation frequency over the course of several years, as the methods become disseminated throughout the scientific community and prove their value.

What are the features of an HCA?

If you’re interested in boosting your own research paper’s visibility, it’s helpful to understand what makes up a highly cited article.

According to a recent study on what comprises an HCA, the title is one of the most important factors. A title between 7–13 words seems to capture the overall purpose for the paper without being too wordy. This analysis also revealed that the titles of the most popular papers are short, further strengthening the case for the short and sweet title.

This study also revealed some of the most common words in the titles of highly cited papers.

Below is a list the top five words in each database, according to this analysis:

  • MDPI: Review, cancer, monitoring, recent, therapeutic
  • Google Scholar: Method, theory, analysis, applications, learning
  • Web of Science: Method, protein, DNA, multiple, new
  • Altmetric: Association, analysis, cancer, health, study

There also seems to be a correlation between the number of authors and the amount of times that an article is cited. Six authors or more appears to be the sweet spot for the most highly cited articles. This finding could be due to the fact that good science requires multiple disciplines, or that each author brings their own network, which, in turn, attracts new readers.

In terms of the length of the most cited articles, 35,000 characters and up (including references) is where most HCAs seem to sit. Articles shorter than that tend to be cited less often. Highly cited articles also contain a minimum of six tables and two figures.

Finally, research reveals that the type of article matters. According to this study, quantitative, review, method, and theory articles were significantly more cited than were qualitative articles or agent-based simulations. 

The study found that some methods, such as the use of SEM, and designs such as meta-analysis, predicted higher article citations. Theoretical approaches, such as the use of transformational, charismatic, or visionary type-leadership theories predicted higher article citations as well.

Pros and cons of an HCA

A HCA is an excellent way to figure out the latest scientific breakthroughs your peers and colleagues are discussing. They’re also reliable sources that can help you stay up-to-date with new discoveries in your field.

However—there's a problem with this type of impact measure. When healthcare professionals share the most important research with each other, they're not writing and publishing their own article just to share the latest news. They're texting, reposting, or emailing the article to their peers. 

When healthcare professionals do this, there is no measurable HCA metric. This means that no one really knows what medical publications are most valuable to the people who need them most. HCA monitoring removes any personal, human-driven interest in articles and publications. 

Tips for finding an HCA

When searching for HCAs in your field, there are a few things to consider. First, each database (i.e. Web of Science, Google Scholar, etc.) only populates articles that are in its database. There may be other articles published in your area of interest which are not in the particular database you’re searching. That’s why it’s important to search multiple databases when seeking HCAs.

Next, articles that were published a while ago will naturally have more opportunity to have been cited. It’s important to note that articles are typically cited most frequently one to three years after their initial publication. With that in mind, consider limiting to a date range when searching—say the last five or 10 years—to see the most current cited articles.

Finally, keep in mind that Google Scholar ranks documents higher that have language (or geographical web domain) matching with the UI language. This ranking is typically skewed higher than what you may expect based on citations. This means that there may be papers in other languages or from different countries that are more-often cited than the papers Google Scholar is showing.


Highly cited articles are an excellent tool to keep up-to-date with the latest scientific breakthroughs in your field. As with everything, there are pros and cons, as well as things to keep in mind while you’re doing research.

At Juisci, we plan to change the way medical publication impact is measured—and this starts with you. When you use Juisci to share, promote, and discuss medical articles you read within our forums and community, your peers will see those articles first, and vice versa. Today and every day, we look forward to seeing what articles pique your interest.

Click here to download the Juisci app and join the community.


LibGuides: Essential Science Indicators: Researcher/Faculty. (2021). Retrieved from: https://clarivate.libguides.com/c.php?g=593878&p=4107961

ESI Highly Cited Papers. (2021). Retrieved from: https://webofscience.help.clarivate.com/en-us/Content/esi-highly-cited-papers.html

5 features of a highly cited article. (2019, August 23). Retrieved from: https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/five-features-highly-cited-scientific-article

Antonakis, J., Bastardoz, N., Liu, Y., & Schriesheim, C. A. (2014). What makes articles highly cited? The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 152–179. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.10.014

How can I find the most cited articles on a given topic? - LibAnswers. (2018). Retrieved from: https://chapman.libanswers.com/faq/246033

Martin-Martin, A., Orduna-Malea, E., Harzing, A.-W., & Delgado López-Cózar, E. (2017). Can we use Google Scholar to identify highly-cited documents? Journal of Informetrics, 11(1), 152–163. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joi.2016.11.008 

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