, Volume 94, Issue 2, pp 675-682

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Do citations and impact factors relate to the real numbers in publications? A case study of citation rates, impact, and effect sizes in ecology and evolutionary biology

  • Christopher J. LortieAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, York University Email author 
  • , Lonnie W. AarssenAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Queen’s University
  • , Amber E. BuddenAffiliated withNational Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis
  • , Roosa LeimuAffiliated withDepartment of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford


Metrics of success or impact in academia may do more harm than good. To explore the value of citations, the reported efficacy of treatments in ecology and evolution from close to 1,500 publications was examined. If citation behavior is rationale, i.e. studies that successfully applied a treatment and detected greater biological effects are cited more frequently, then we predict that larger effect sizes increases study relative citation rates. This prediction was not supported. Citations are likely thus a poor proxy for the quantitative merit of a given treatment in ecology and evolutionary biology—unlike evidence-based medicine wherein the success of a drug or treatment on human health is one of the critical attributes. Impact factor of the journal is a broader metric, as one would expect, but it also unrelated to the mean effect sizes for the respective populations of publications. The interpretation by the authors of the treatment effects within each study differed depending on whether the hypothesis was supported or rejected. Significantly larger effect sizes were associated with rejection of a hypothesis. This suggests that only the most rigorous studies reporting negative results are published or that authors set a higher burden of proof in rejecting a hypothesis. The former is likely true to a major extent since only 29 % of the studies rejected the hypotheses tested. These findings indicate that the use of citations to identify important papers in this specific discipline—at least in terms of designing a new experiment or contrasting treatments—is of limited value.


Citations Ecology Effect size Evolutionary biology Hypothesis testing Treatments