Statistical relationships between downloads and citations at the level of individual documents within a single journal



Statistical relationships between downloads from ScienceDirect of documents in Elsevier's electronic journal Tetrahedron Letters and citations to these documents recorded in journals processed by the Institute for Scientific Information/Thomson Scientific for the Science Citation Index (SCI) are examined. A synchronous approach revealed that downloads and citations show different patterns of obsolescence of the used materials. The former can be adequately described by a model consisting of the sum of two negative exponential functions, representing an ephemeral and a residual factor, whereas the decline phase of the latter conforms to a simple exponential function with a decay constant statistically similar to that of the downloads residual factor. A diachronous approach showed that, as a cohort of documents grows older, its download distribution becomes more and more skewed, and more statistically similar to its citation distribution. A method is proposed to estimate the effect of citations upon downloads using obsolescence patterns. It was found that during the first 3 months after an article is cited, its number of downloads increased 25% compared to what one would expect this number to be if the article had not been cited. Moreover, more downloads of citing documents led to more downloads of the cited article through the citation. An analysis of 1,190 papers in the journal during a time interval of 2 years after publication date revealed that there is about one citation for every 100 downloads. A Spearman rank correlation coefficient of 0.22 was found between the number of times an article was downloaded and its citation rate recorded in the SCI. When initial downloads—defined as downloads made during the first 3 months after publication—were discarded, the correlation raised to 0.35. However, both outcomes measure the joint effect of downloads upon citation and that of citation upon downloads. Correlating initial downloads to later citation counts, the correlation coefficient drops to 0.11. Findings suggest that initial downloads and citations relate to distinct phases in the process of collecting and processing relevant scientific information that eventually leads to the publication of a journal article.