It will surprise few that methods papers lead the list of the most cited scientific articles ever—at least those tracked in the Institute for Scientific Information’s Science Citation Index, 1955 to 1987.
“The lowry paper,” as it is known, stands head-and-shoulders above all others. This 1951 article by Oliver H. Lowry Nira J. Rosenbrough, A. Lewis Farr, and R.J. Randall, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, 193,265-75, reported an improved procedure for measuring proteins. Although more sensitive methods have since been introduced, it still ranks as the King of the Classics, with over 180,000 citations by the end of 1987. It continues to receive 10,000 citations per year.
Why is this the most cited paper? Lowry observed: “It filled a need in the beginning—and a lot of people measure proteins. Once it became established... other people may have thought it was the method to use, or at least checked the procedure they were using against it.”
The accompying chart plots citations per year to the lowry paper, and those to the second, third and fourth ranking Citation Classics.
Citations to the Lowry paper began to slow in the mid-1970s. At about the same time—in 1976— Marion M. Bradford published “A rapid and sensitive method for the quantitation of microgram quantities of protein utilizing the principle of protein dye-binding” in Analytical Biochemistry, 72, 248-54. Many now cite the Bradford paper instead of the lowry paper—more and more all the time. With about 20,000 citations by the end of last year, the Bradford paper is now the fourth most cited paper in the SCI.
The runner-up to Lowry, written by Ulrich Karl Laemmli, was published in Nature, 227, 680-5. “Cleavage of structural proteins during the assembly of the head of bacteriophage T4” accumulated nearly 50,000 citations between its publication in 1970 and the end of 1987. This procedure has not been superseded, which explains its steady rise in the chart.
The third most cited article, with just over 20,000 citations is “Reliability of molecular weight determinations by dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis,” by K. Weber and M. Osborn, published in 1969 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, 244, 4406-12. The record of citations to this article shows a more typical pattern for well-known and highly cited papers—the “obliteration by incorporation” effect, whereby the substance of a work becomes so widely recognized that overt citation is eventually deemed unnecessary. Such seems to have been the fate of this classic since 1977.