The most cited scientist on Google Scholar isn’t a person

By: Everyone else.
By: Everyone else.
Image: Scott Barkley/ CC BY 2.0
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Google Scholar is an easy way to scour scientific papers, conference proceedings, and books—but it’s not always accurate.

The most cited scientist of all time is “et al.,” according to Google Scholar. That’s the Latin abbreviation used in research to indicate that a group of other scientists contributed to the paper. The phrase is shortened from “et alia,” which literally translates to “and others.”

Et al. has 2,415,484 attributed citations in the Google database. Second place? Sigmund Freud, with 451,806 citations, according to Webometrics.

The most-cited paper attributed to Et al. is a 1951 biology study on measuring proteins with 195,644 citations of its own. This paper is also the most cited paper of all time according to the journal Nature. However, the Nature ranking (published in 2014) puts the paper’s total number of citation at 305,148. Google’s algorithmic count misses the mark by roughly 105,000 citations, a 35% error.

Google Scholar’s error places this study as the second most-cited article on the site, behind, coincidentally or not, another biology paper concerning proteins with 223,131 citations, according to a 2014 document (download link) provided to Nature by Google. 

Of course, the number of times an article has been cited isn’t necessarily the measure of its value. A 1958 method to estimate survival in populations like patients in medical studies was largely unrecognized until the computing boom made the work easily replicable more than 10 years later. It’s now the most cited statistics paper of all time, showing that knowledge becomes valuable in its own time.

A. Author also exists within the world of Google Scholar, but is credited with far less impact—only 3,702 citations.