Understanding which papers attract critical citations, and what effect they have, gives an insight into how science progresses, says Christian Catalini.
Science advances through researchers sharing their work for others to extend or improve. As Isaac Newton once said, he could see further by “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
But what happens when those shoulders aren’t as sturdy as we thought? Sometimes, citations are negative, pointing out a study’s flaws or even disproving its findings. What role, relevance and impact do these negative citations have on a field as a whole?
There has been little research in this area, because of the difficulty in identifying and classifying such citations. Thanks to advancements in the ability of computers to understand human language, known as natural-language processing, and in the ability to sort and analyse large bodies of text, this is changing. We can now identify such citations and reconstruct the context in which they were made to understand the author’s intentions better. Using such techniques, my colleagues and I have found evidence to suggest that negative citations play an important role in the advancement of science.