The most cited work in history is a 1951 paper describing an assay to determine the amount of protein in a solution. It has now gathered more than 305,000 citations — a recognition that always puzzled its lead author, the late US biochemist Oliver Lowry. “Although I really know it is not a great paper … I secretly get a kick out of the response,” he wrote in 1977.
The colossal size of the scholarly literature means that the top-100 papers are extreme outliers. Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science holds some 58 million items. Only 14,499 papers have more than 1,000 citations. Meanwhile, works that have been cited only once, if at all — a group that encompasses roughly half of the items.