Interpreting citations in Google Scholar and other databases:
- An item that is cited many times indicates impact, but it does not indicate value. In other words, just because a source has been cited numerous times doesn't mean it is a good source; it may be highly cited because others have used it as an example of a study that is poorly designed or used faulty methodologies or provided questionable conclusions. Review a sample of recent studies that have referenced the work and assess how the source is being described. Based on this, determine how it may be relevant to your own research [note that, when appropriate, a poorly designed study can be cited as an example in your paper of what not to do!].
- A study published many years ago will likely be cited more times than a recently published study. Again, though, the total number of times a source is cited does not indicate its value in regards to advancing knowledge. Review the most recent five or so years of citations to the original work. Is it still being cited or has there been a significant reduction in the number of times others have referenced the work? If there are few, if any, citations to the original work during the last few years, this may indicate that its impact has waned and new research has emerged.
- Concomitantly, a study may be considered foundational if it continues to be cited frequently in the most recently published literature on the topic [i.e., the study was the first to advanced new knowledge, theory, methodology, and/or understanding about the research problem or its application to practice]. In most cases, there is an expectation that a study interpreted to be foundational should be cited as the basis for launching your overall literature review. If a study is considered foundational or groundbreaking, it will generally be referenced this way in the current literature [e.g., "The early study by Smith established important principles of good practice in the clinical evaluation of childhood trauma that..."].
- Examine the multidisciplinary scope of the citations. Particularly for items published in the past twenty-five years when a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research emerged in the social and behavioral sciences, review citations to determine the scope of a source's impact across disciplines. This can be a good indicator of a study's overall impact because it has been referenced in a variety of different fields of research and in a variety of different investigative contexts or areas of applied practice.
- Examine whether the source is referenced alone or always grouped with other sources. This act of interpretation can be problematic, but, in general, a study that is consistently cited with other sources, though rarely referenced as a stand-alone study, may indicate that the research is not unique or distinctive in a way that stands out from the overall domain of prior research about the topic. This is not necessarily bad since many scholars may have investigated a specific research problem. However, in interpreting the relevance of a particular source in relation to your own research, sources that have never been referenced as a singular source of prior research can be an additional way of determining their overall impact.
Bakkalbasi, Nisa. “Three Options for Citation Tracking: Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science.” Biomedical Digital Libraries 3 (2006): http://www.bio-diglib.com/content/pdf/1742-5581-3-7.pdf; Lawrence, D. J. “Journal Citation Tracking and Journal Indexing.” Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 15 (September 1992): 415-417; Kloda, Lorie A. "Use Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science for Comprehensive Citation Tracking." Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 2 (2007): 87-90; Mavodza, Judith. Citation Tracking in Academic Libraries: An Overview. Oxford, UK: Chandos Publishing, May 2016; Weisbard, Phyllis Holman. “Citation Tracking: Citings and Sightings.” Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources 32 (Winter 2011): 21-25.