The life trajectories of research articles

The life trajectories of research articles

Researchers and doctoral students are very satisfied when an article is accepted for publication. In this blog, however, the focus is on what happens to articles after the have been published. I think that far too little attention is paid to this issue. After all, it is of the utmost importance if someone reads the article and relates to its thoughts and /or results. I will thus discuss what I have chosen in the title to call the life trajectories of articles that have been published.

The thoughts discussed in this blog are a product of a major research project also involving Eva Forsberg, Åsa Hirsh, Henrik Roman, Daniel Sundberg and Ingrid Olsson. In the project, we have analyzed research with so-called "high impact", that is research that is often referenced by other researchers.

In one of our sub-projects, we have identified three types of life trajectories for articles which are described in more detail in the next paragraph.

"Magnets", "game-changers" and "game-challengers"

In the specific sub-study in the project where these three life trajectories were identified, research reviews were analyzed in leading special education journals on three arenas;  one American (three journals), one European (one journal) and one more international (one journal). It should  be noted that the journal I have called international here is dominated by European researchers. To measure the number of citations we used the databases Web of Science and Scopus.

On each of these arenas, there is a specific research revieew (see references below) that is cited significantly more than the review that is second most cited. We call these articles which attract most citations "magnets".

Only this simple analysis reflects something very important. In North America (mainly the USA) a reivew article dominates which deals with how to methodologically proceed to obtain evidence for specific working methods from studies where only a few subjects are studied. Many of these studies are about interventions for students with different diagnoses. In the European and the international journals, on the other hand, reviews about teachers´ attitudes towards inclusion are the “magnets”.

"Game-changers" are articles that are widely referenced and that partly put a research area in a new light. In this way, the article by de Boer that was identified above as a "magnet" is also a possible "game-changer" because it provides a more negative view of teachers´attitudes towards the placement of children with disabilities in mainstream classes than in previous research.

Kerstin Göransson and I have written a potential "game-challenger" where we criticize the mainstream of inclusion research (see reference below). Whether it will be a "game-changer" or not remains to be seen.

It is of course possible to develop the conceptual apparatus by identifying other life trajectories for articles. The examples above were generated in a systematic analysis of articles that have been referenced a lot, in the following I will describe and name additional life trajectories that I have identified in different contexts. However, the field is open for studies that develop the categorizations presented here or that identify new types of life trajectories for articles.

"Placeholders", "Early bloomers", "Sleeping beauties" and "Deep sleepers"

In several of the educational science research fields I have come in contact with, there seems to be a relatively limited number of articles which together account for a large proportion of references in the field. We can call these articles "Placeholders", which means that they have secured a place in the research area, at least over a longer period of time. "Magnets" are from that perspective the most prominent of "Placeholders".

But all other articles? There are articles that are initially referenced a lot, so-called "Early bloomers", which may be due to the fact that they concern a contemporary topic, but which other researchers in the longer run cease to refer to.

Then we have the articles that are rarely or never referenced. In general, there are in the fields we have examined a very large number of articles which have never been referenced, often up to half of the articles.

Of course, most people who write an article that is not referenced hope that it is a "Sleeping beauty". Someone will discover the good qualities of the article, even its beauty, and give it a new life trajectory. This is probably very unusual, it is unfortunately common for many articles to be "deep sleepers", i e extremely difficult to bring to life.

Final words

This blog can be seen as an invitation for the reader to start orienting oneself in a very exciting world. There are, of course, other words and concepts to describe the life trajectories of articles. Here I have presented what can be seen as an initial attempt to find and describe some basic life trajectories concerning research articles in the field of educational science.

I think that as a researcher it is important to find out what happens to your published articles. I think that it sometimes can be a disappointing exercise to see how often articles are referenced, but as researchers it is not our job to stick our head in the sand.

It is also important that we as researchers engage in these issues, as the number of times articles are cited may, to a greater extent than at present, form the basis for the distribution of research funds.

Finally it is time to state the most important question: Is the number of times an article is cited a good measure of its scientific quality? My answer is no regarding the field of educational sciences, which is the field I can comment on.

Quality in the field of educational sciences is always dependent on the perspective from which we assess quality. In other words, quality is a relationship between the scientific work and the perspective of the assessor and not an objective property of the assessed object. This is an important reason why it has proved difficult to measure scientific quality because researchers simply judge from different points of view.

In educational research there is a certain amount of "craftsmanship" about which I think there can be quite a lot of agreement. Such craftmanship can touch on everything from methodological considerations to the way arguments are presented. But if we go deeper into what constitutes high quality research opinions diverge.

An interesting example in this regard is Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's article Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching from 2006 published in Educational Psychologis (41 ( 2), 75–86) which by people with a polemical interest is usually cited as a proof for claims made in  progressive approaches to educational research

The article is widely referenced. For the more scientifically interested it is possible to follow in the Web of Science how this article is cited in research. We can then see that several are critical of the article and question the value of, for example, the conclusions drawn in it.

The point here is not to take a stand in this infected discussion but to illustrate that quality to a large extent has to do with the assessor's perspective. This does not mean that we as researchers should relate relativistically to the issue of quality but it does imply that it is important to  be explicit regarding our own perspective as regards research quality.

Examples of article types:


North America:

Horner et al. 2005. “The Use of Single-Subject Research to Identify Evidence-Based Practices.” Exceptional Children. (referenced 1101 times in Web of Science against 438 times for the second most referenced research review in the 3 journals)


Avramidis and Norwich. 2002. "Teachers' Attitudes Towards Integration / Inclusion: A Review of the Literature." European Journal of Special Needs Education. (referenced 483 times in Scopus against 66 times for the second most referenced research review in the journal)

International arena:

De Boer et al. 2011. "Regular Primary Schoolteachers' Attitudes Towards Inclusive Education: A Review of the Literature." International Journal of Inclusive Education. (referenced 201 times to 106 times for the second most referenced research review in the journal) (probably also a "game-changer")


Göransson, K. and Nilholm, c. (2014) Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education. (now referenced 58 times in Scopus)

 This is the last blog before the summer, the next blog will be published in late August.

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