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In a recent issue, we published a list of the 100 most cited authors who have published work relevant to tobacco control.1 We also listed the 50 most cited papers in our field. That exercise produced lists of authors and papers dominated by “big epi” work: papers mainly establishing the contribution of tobacco use to disease. Such papers are often published in high impact factor journals and tend to be cited in the introductory sections of other papers.
Constructing the lists by citations alone resulted in some authors appearing who would not normally be considered leaders in tobacco control. They were primarily researchers working in epidemiology—often multi-risk factor epidemiology—whose work involved them in looking at the relation of smoking to disease. There were very few whose work involved tobacco control. Similarly, the 50 most cited papers were also dominated by epidemiological studies. The lists were decidedly narrow in showing the breadth of research scholarship examining all aspects of tobacco control policy, programmes, and the science underpinning these.
Throughout my own career, I have often noted papers that struck me as in some way seminal or as having made a research contribution that changed the ways in which our field thought about strategy and what needed to be done. I thought a parallel exercise where we invited people to vote for what they considered, simply, are the most important and influential papers in tobacco control might produce an interesting list.
Over one month, all corresponding authors on papers published in Tobacco Control since 2001, as well as the members of the journal’s editorial advisory board and its senior editors, were invited to go to a closed website to nominate up to five papers in each of 12 broad subject categories which they regarded as the “most important and influential papers” on tobacco control. Fifteen author’s emails were returned as non-functional, leaving 202 who were invited to nominate. The software associated with the nomination process allowed the PubMed database to be searched and the unique identifying number of each nominated paper to be extracted to a database. Nominators could not see papers nominated by other nominators.
The 12 lists of papers thus obtained were then placed on a public website and thrown open for public voting for four weeks. Publicity about the voting was placed on the Tobacco Control homepage, on my own website,2 and via the Globalink and Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco membership list servers. The software limited each person’s voting to five votes per category. Voters were unable to see the progressive voting totals as they voted. Papers nominated in more than one category were allowed to attract votes in each of their nominated categories.
The nomination phase saw 49 people nominate 658 different papers; 49 (19.8%) made at least one nomination (range 1–60, mean 22.1). The voting phase saw 179 people vote 2966 times for these 658 papers. Papers listed by the nominators were included in the total votes. The 12 lists (tables 1–12) are shown below in order of the number of votes received for the 10 top papers in each category (in two categories there were 11 papers because of tied votes), as well as their citations as shown on the Institute of Scientific Information’s Web of Science site as of June 2005.
Over three quarters of the leading papers were published in five journals: Tobacco Control (40), JAMA (20), BMJ (17), American Journal of Public Health (10), and New England Journal of Medicine (6).
Self nominations in the nomination phase were common although, with a few exceptions, by no means dominated any individual’s list. It is possible that some authors may have urged their colleagues to vote for their papers, but if this occurred, it did not appear to be obvious in the pattern of voting. Voters had no way of knowing how many votes would have been needed to get them “over the line” into the top 10 in any category.
The average number of years since publication of papers in all categories was 8.5 years. In some categories (industry conduct, mass media, and “other”) recent papers dominated the lists, suggesting a recent recall bias may have been operating or, in the case of industry conduct, the avalanche of recent work engendered by the availability of internal industry documents. It may have been that some considered “influence and importance” to mean importance to today’s policy environment.
The lists of papers may be useful to teachers wishing to point students to a range of reading that those working in the field regard as important. Journals sometimes ask a prominent researcher to list important papers they would advise all newcomers to a field to read. This exercise has advanced the spirit of those sorts of lists further by engaging far more in the voting process.
Competing interests: none declared