Here's a very cool effort by the people at Nature - to commemorate the 50th year of the Science Citation Index, the first tool to track citations in the scientific literature, they asked the current owners of the SCI, Thomson Reuters, to generate a list of the top 100 most cited papers. Personally, I found the results fascinating, especially for the biology side of things. First of all, the top 100 papers represent a miniscule sliver of all the papers out there:
"Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science holds some 58 million items. If that corpus were scaled to Mount Kilimanjaro, then the 100 most-cited papers would represent just 1 centimetre at the peak."
If someone had asked me what sorts of biology-related studies had made the cut, I would have thought maybe this one, or either of these. Turns out, I'd be totally wrong. The top papers in biology are largely methods papers, outlining a protocol for performing specific procedures - the top three are the papers describing the Lowry and Bradford methods of protein quantification, and a recipe for Laemmli buffer, used to prepare proteins for electrophoresis. While these are workhorse procedures in a molecular or cellular biology lab, explaining the sheer volume of citations, they're definitely not what would first come to mind as candidates for publishing glory.
When I was in grad school, I heard of many instances where so-called "methods" papers weren't considered particularly exciting; you were just building a tool, not discovering a cool new biological phenomenon that could land you on the cover of Nature. This study is conclusive proof that tool-building is exactly the way to go if you want your papers to live on in the literature.
"Still, there is one powerful lesson for researchers, notes Peter Moore, a chemist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “If citations are what you want,” he says, “devising a method that makes it possible for people to do the experiments they want at all, or more easily, will get you a lot further than, say, discovering the secret of the Universe”.