Whether you’ve published 1 or 101 journal articles, you must be curious about how frequently those articles are read, shared, and cited. Later posts in this series will examine the many programs and applications that can help you track that information. This post gives you two important Rules of Thumb.

No one tool (or ring) can give you an absolute answer about how often an article has been cited, read, or shared. Each tool can only report on what it knows. Web of Science doesn’t index every journal published; Mendeley isn’t the only way people share articles; even Google Scholar can’t scoop up everything. So you can use a few tools to get an impression or ‘average’ of how often an article is cited or downloaded. Or you could choose the tool that provides the best coverage of your discipline, and use only that tool.

The numbers reported by these tools may not mean what we think they mean. (Inconceivable!) Say you’ve found out that one of your articles has been cited by 60 other articles. Wonderful! We generally take that to mean that 60 other authors have read the article, found it to be useful in their work, and have cited it. Many others may have read the article, but not cited it. Some people may not have read the article, but cited it anyway, because the article they read cited it. And what if someone cited your article because they disagreed with you? I think most citations are made for the first reason – the article was read and found to be useful. But those other scenarios are both plausible and possible.

Two more posts in this series will provide tips on tracking citations and utilizing altmetrics.

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