Evolutionary Biology

Publication Analysis 1996-2006
by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 03/2008

Europe... ... and the World Most Cited Authors... ... and Papers

Most Cited Authors - Pictures

“Bye, pals! I’m leaving our branch to found a new species.”

England dominated European evolutionary biology research. By topic, computational evolutionary biology and microbial phylogeny performed particularly well. Then finally, there is the story of a “fallen star”...

Most of you know the famous statement by the Russian-born US evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the central figures in shaping the unifying modern evolutionary synthesis during the 1940s. You don’t? Okay, here we go: in a 1964 article in American Zoologist he wrote the sentence “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

The reason that Dobzhansky’s statement became so famous is that apparently many agree with it. That in turn means that evolutionary biology is regarded as a kind of umbrella discipline for most, if not all, of the subfields of biology. The reason is simple: every biological mechanism and every biological molecule discovered are the results of a long evolutionary history of adaptation.

Of course, this is a fact that could easily hamper a fair comparison of performance in evolutionary biology research because it is difficult to draw clear boundaries. On the one hand, what is research that has pure evolutionary biology as its main focus? On the other hand, how can it be separated from research that primarily aims at solving problems from, for example, biochemistry or developmental biology, but in addition carries with it some evolutionary aspects? Or similarly, how to judge research that uses insights from evolutionary biology to tackle problems from other subfields? Like, for example, assigning functions to unknown protein coding sequences by comparative genomics, or optimising the characteristics of certain molecules by so-called directed in vitro evolution.

Really evolution in focus?

Thus, the only way to conduct a fair analysis of publication performance in evolutionary biology research is to set tough standards. Accordingly, we excluded research that studied or used evolutionary aspects only as part of a different field and accepted only publications which clearly aimed at solving questions from evolutionary biology.

In principle, this requirement should be met a priori when restricted to specialist journals in evolutionary biology. On the other hand, most of the top papers of the field are traditionally published in multidisciplinary journals like Nature, Science or PNAS. Since, however, the Web of Science publication database from Thomson Scientific which was used for this analysis doesn’t provide tools to extract “real” evolutionary biology articles with sufficient reliability, we had to omit them anyway, at least from the analysis of individual countries’ performance during the period 1996 to 2006 (see tables p. 39).

Of course, this way some of the most prominent papers in the field did not go into this part of the analysis. Despite this limitation, however, we believe that a survey of expert journals alone nevertheless provides sufficiently valid indicators for countries’ overall productivity in evolutionary biology research. In contrast, for the rankings of the most-cited researchers and papers (see tables p. 40); publications in all journals were included.

Applying this approach to European countries and Israel, England published the most articles in the evolutionary biology expert journals over the period 1996 to 2006 (4,619). Already far out of sight, Germany and France followed closely together in the next places (3,498 and 3,377, respectively).

Best average rates for Sweden and Scotland

Behind these two, another wide gap opened up before Spain came in at fourth place with 1,856 articles. Going further down the ladder, only five more countries achieved more than 1,000 articles between 1996 and 2006: Sweden (1,493), Russia (1,394), Italy (1,309), Scotland (1,101) and Switzerland (1,047).

When, however, it comes to how frequently the articles of individual nations have been cited to-date, this order got mixed up again. France, for example, left Germany behind to make it to a clear second place. Similarly, Sweden outran Spain, which thus came in fifth by number of citations. Furthermore, Italy and Russia dropped to 9th and 14th place, respectively.

The reason for these shifts, of course, is different rates of citations per article. Accordingly, Sweden achieved the highest rate with each of its articles from between 1996 and 2006 cited exactly 20 times on average to-date. Very close behind, however, followed Scotland with 19.9 citations per article, thereby gaining a bit more distance until the Netherlands came in third (17.8).

Two surprises were Israel and the Czech Republic – the former for performing weakly in the comparison with other bio­medical fields, the latter for achieving a comparatively strong performance.

Altogether, European authors signed slightly more articles in evolutionary biology journals over the period 1996 to 2006 than their US colleagues. Due to a higher citation-per-article rate, however, the papers co-authored by US researchers have been cited more frequently to-date.

When comparing the number of overall citations, Canada even outran Germany whereas Australia came in clearly better than Europe’s fourth, Sweden. Japan this time performed more weakly than these two.

Let’s switch to articles and authors (see tables p. 40). The five most-cited articles from 1996-2006 with a corresponding address in Europe or Israel demonstrate one thing at first sight: ques­tions from evolutionary biology are particularly suited to the application of methods from computational biology. In particular, the establishment of phylogenetic trees by comparing ever growing amounts of sequence data has become a real playground for the application of stochastic maximum likelihood approaches.

All five top evolutionary biology papers belong in this category, each presenting a specific software tool for evolutionary tree construction. Interestingly, by far the most-cited article is a two page application note written by Glasgow’s Roderic Page as a single author.

When looking at the thirty most-cited authors the strong performance of some microbiologists is immediately striking. Among them are some of the pioneers of applying specific DNA probes to elucidate by sequence comparison bacterial diversity as well as their molecular taxonomy, systematics, phylogeny and evolution. These are, for example, Rudolf Amann (1st), Erko Stackebrandt (8th), Michael Wagner (12th) and Wolfgang Ludwig (13th) who all at different times went through the lab of Karl Heinz Schleifer (7th) at the Technical University of Munich.

A pariah, but nothing proven

In second place came a man who has recently evoked a lot of controversy: Anders Pape Møller, Danish bird expert from the University of Paris. With his findings in the early 1990s that barn swallow females preferred the most symmetrical males Møller was the central figure in postulating the theory that bilateral symmetry is an indicator of “good genes” and therefore a key parameter in sexual selection. At the end of the 1990s, however, he was accused of fabricating data in a specific paper. The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty as well as his home institution, the National Centre for Scientific research (CNRS) in Paris, investigated the case but couldn’t find Møller guilty of intentional fraud. However, they also stated that the material evidence necessary to establish innocence was lacking. Møller has since fallen “from superstar evolutionary biologist to pariah” (The Scientist) but continues to publish at a normal pace.

In third place was the most-cited of the subgroup of mathematical and computational evolutionary biologists: London’s Ziheng Yang. Completely different fields are represented by the following two researchers: Svante Pääbo (4th) focusses on human evolution whilst Mark Chase (5th) is a specialist in plant systematics and phylogeny. Then, of course, there are more examples that demonstrate the real diversity of evolutionary biology research: Axel Meyer (14th) is an expert in fish speciation; Eddie Holmes (15th) investigates virus evolution; William Martin (17th) studies the evolution of the first eukaryotic cells and Andrei Lupas (26th) is head of a department for protein evolution.

Well, on the other hand, such diversity is exactly what you’d expect from an “umbrella discipline” like evolutionary biology.


Articles appeared between 1996 and 2006 in evolutionary biology journals as listed by Thomson Scientific. Their citation numbers were recorded up until March 2008. A country’s figures are derived from articles where at least one author working in the respective European nation is included in the author’s list. Israel is included because it is a member of many European research organisations (EMBO, FEBS etc.), as well as participating in the EU Research Framework Programmes.

Citations of articles published between 1996 and 2006 were recorded until March 2008 using the database Web of Science from Thomson Scientific. The “most cited papers” had correspondence addresses in Europe or Israel.


Country Citations Articles Cit./Art.
17.Czech Rep.3.3013339,9

... and the World

Citations Articles Cit./Art.

Most Cited Authors...

Citations Articles
1.Rudolf Amann, Max Planck-Inst. f. Marine Microbiol. Bremen10.003176
2.Anders Pape Møller, Lab Parasitol. Evol., CNRS, Univ. Paris8.708305
3.Ziheng Yang, Genet. Environm. & Evol. Univ. Coll. London7.84473
4.Svante Pääbo, Max Planck-Inst. Evol. Anthropol. Leipzig7.429142
5.Marc W. Chase, Jodrell Lab Royal Bot. Gardens Kew Richmond7.271183
6.Peter Vandamme, Microbiol. Lab Univ. Ghent6.655235
7.Karl Heinz Schleifer, Microbiol. Tech. Univ. Munich 6.04898
8.Erko Stackebrandt, Ger. Collect. Microorg. & Cell Cult. Braunschweig5.858261
9.Godfrey M. Hewitt, Ctr. Ecol. Evol. & Conserv. Univ. E. Anglia, Norwich5.56092
10.Roderic D.M. Page, Environm. & Evolutionary Biol. Univ. Glasgow5.50640
11.Hans Ellegren, Evol. Biol. Centre Univ. Uppsala5.488133
12.Michael Wagner, Microbiol. Univ. Vienna5.441111
13.Wolfgang Ludwig, Microbiol. Tech. Univ. Munich5.033106
14.Axel Meyer, Evol. Biol. Univ. Konstanz 4.966165
15.Eddie C. Holmes, Evol. Biol. Dep. Zool. Univ. Oxford4.480171
16.Arndt von Haeseler, Ctr. Integrative Bioinform. Univ. Vienna4.44453
17.William Martin, Bot. Univ. Düsseldorf4.438105
18.Hans Jürgen Bandelt, Mathematics Univ. Hamburg4.15475
19.Vincent Savolainen, Jodrell Lab Royal Bot Gardens Kew Richmond4.01773
20.Manolo Gouy, Lab Biometrie & Biol. Evolut., CNRS, UMR, Univ. Lyon3.94333
21.Linda Partridge, Dep. Biol. Univ. Coll. London3.927111
22.Eviatar Nevo, Inst. Evol. Univ. Haifa3.885292
23.Josephine M. Pemberton, Evol. Biol. Univ. Edinburgh3.79674
24.Mark Stoneking, Max Planck-Inst. Evol. Anthropol. Leipzig3.763121
25.Brian Charleswoth, Evol. Biol. Univ. Edinburgh3.732122
26.Yves van de Peer, Plant Syst. Biol. Univ. Ghent3.67888
27.Andrei Lupas, Protein Evol. Max Planck-Inst. Dev. Biol. Tübingen3.65676
28.Laurence D. Hurst, Evol. Genet. Univ. Bath3.643118
29.Ben C. Sheldon, Zool. Univ. Oxford3.61374
30.Pierre Taberlet, Lab. d’Ecologie Alpine, CNRS, Univ. Grenoble3.58887

... and Papers

1.Page, RDM
TreeView: An application to display phylogenetic trees on personal computers.
2.Strimmer, K; von Haeseler, A
Quartet puzzling: A quartet maximum-likelihood method for reconstructing tree topologies.
3.Ronquist, F; Huelsenbeck, JP
MrBayes 3: Bayesian phylogenetic inference under mixed models.
BIOINFORMATICS, 19 (12): 1572-1574 AUG 12 2003
4.Yang, ZH
PAML: a program package for phylogenetic analysis by maximum likelihood.
5.Guindon, S; Gascuel, O
A simple, fast, and accurate algorithm to estimate large phylogenies by maximum likelihood.
SYSTEMATIC BIOLOGY, 52 (5): 696-704 OCT 2003

Last Changed: 31.03.2012

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