(April 13th, 2015) Irish researchers performed the first bibliometric analysis of the evolution of a research field. From the primitive beginnings some twenty years ago to the complex present, the miRNA field has evolved into a truly remarkable form.
‘Bibliometrics’, the statistical analysis of books, articles or other publications, is a valuable tool for lots of things, e.g. citation analysis or measuring term frequencies. But this branch of library science also allows the meticulous study of the activity and dynamics of a specific research field. Such analysis could provide researchers with unprecedented clues into the history and potential future of a given research field. That’s why Máire-Caitlín Casey, Michael J. Kerin, James A. Brown and Karl J. Sweeney from the National University of Ireland took advantage of bibliometrics to trace the evolution of the microRNA field, a field very close to their scientific hearts. “This is a recently discovered [21 years old], yet rapidly developed research area, and miRNA is one of our key research interests, specifically how miRNA could be used for diagnosing or monitoring breast cancer,” says corresponding author, James A. Brown.
Brown and colleagues used a number of parameters for their survey: publication distribution by country, peer-reviewed publications, publication citations, open access versus pay-per-view, and others. Their entire analysis was based on the Web of Science (WoS) database. “We specially chose WoS because of its far superior journal coverage, which we felt provided a more complete and comprehensive picture of miRNA-related publications (64% more coverage than its nearest rival, PubMed). In addition, WoS has a suite of tools that are extremely useful for bibliometric analyses,” Brown reasons.
When asked about the main benefits of such studies, Brown comments: “Recognising a young research field often means there is more opportunity for novel discoveries, new research directions and more opportunities for funding. This also means that explanations of your investigations need to be more detailed and thorough, as fewer researchers are familiar with the area. However, in more mature fields to create and develop novel ideas and research directions is much more difficult and careful literature searches are required to confirm that your work is indeed novel or has not been completed already. Recognising the stage of a scientific field allows scientists to more accurately target their research for publication in specific journals or funding agencies i.e. if a field is very new the research is likely to be of interest to a wide audience in higher impact journals and blue-sky funding agencies. While in a mature field, there are likely more specific journals dealing with research advances in that field and likely more targeted, research area-specific funding opportunities.”
What’s the past, present and future of miRNA research? 1993 saw the first mention of miRNA, or small RNAs, in a scientific paper. Thereafter, not much happened. Until, in 2003, the field took off like a rocket, peaking in 2013, when researchers published 6,560 papers about miRNA, that’s 25% of total miRNA publications (ca 26,000 from 1993 to 2013). Some of the milestones of miRNA research include their conservation across the animal kingdom (2000) and their regulatory role in processes such as differentiation and apoptosis (2004 onward). When looking at the countries the research came from, Brown and colleagues identified the USA as the top place for miRNA research - almost half of all publications originate there; followed by China and the UK. Interestingly, not less than 17% of all miRNA publications were published as open access. Brown et al. think that future miRNA research will, most likely, aim at its therapeutic potential but “many obstacles currently remain, including identification of optimal delivery methods, off-target effects and safety”.
Brown sums up: “The current trend of publishing scientific papers in open access journals provides both researchers and the public access to the publications, without negatively affecting the researchers` metrics. Our work also demonstrates how current scientific studies are truly a global enterprise and that the size of the country does not necessary affect the quality or impact of the research carried out.”