Citations and certainty: a new interpretation of citation counts


We report that the rate of hedging in citing sentences for biomedical papers is inversely related to the citations received by the papers as measured by the number of citances in citing papers. Hedging is often regarded as an expression of uncertainty in rhetorical studies of scientific text. Citing sentences, or citances, are retrieved from the PubMed Central database for papers having 10 or more citances, and the percentage of citances containing hedging words is plotted against the number of citances for the papers, which is closely related to the citation count. Hedging rates are computed separately for method and non-method papers, the latter being more frequently hedged. Rates of hedging are found to be higher for papers with fewer citances, suggesting that the certainty of scientific results is directly related to citation frequency. Similarly, early citations made soon after publication are more hedged than later citations. The implications of this finding for the interpretation of citation counts are discussed, and the directions for future research.

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    The logistic regression equations used were p1 = 1/(1+Exp(3.424 − 0.216 * [% utility])) where [% utility] is the percentage of citances containing utility words, and p2 = 1/(1+Exp(2.72 − 0.11 * [% method section])) where [% method section] is the percentage of citances appearing in method sections. When either probability p1 or p2 is > 0.5, the paper was designated a method. All other papers were designated non-methods (Small 2018).


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We thank Mike Patek for parsing of the PubMed Central full text data into data structures suitable for analysis.

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Correspondence to Henry Small.

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Small, H., Boyack, K.W. & Klavans, R. Citations and certainty: a new interpretation of citation counts. Scientometrics 118, 1079–1092 (2019).

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  • Citations
  • Citances
  • Hedging
  • Uncertainty
  • Biomedicine