Redefining impact: The surprising back story behind one paper's citations

The 2002 Genome Biology article by Vandesompele et al., is one of the most highly cited in all of BioMed Central’s journals. With over 225,003 views since it was published and 1,830 citations on PubMed alone, it’s had a huge impact in the genomics field. But the paper almost didn’t get published at all. For Open Access Week, we’ve delved a little more into the back story behind the research, and found out about the story behind the citations.

In 2000, Jo Vandesompele was a PhD student at the Center for Medical Genetics in Ghent University hospital. One of the methods he was using in his research was quanititative real-time reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR), a method used to detect which how much of each gene is expressed in a given sample. But he saw problems with the way that researchers ‘calibrated’ their instruments to profile genes, which he thought might be seriously affecting the accuracy of the results scientists were reporting.

‘I was shocked that people used a single non-validated reference gene (at that time still called a housekeeping gene) for normalization of their RT-qPCR data. I wanted to know the impact of this practice on the accuracy of the results and did a detour in my PhD project.’

What he found out was pretty shocking.

‘As it turned out, one quarter of the results differed by more than 300% depending on the selected reference gene, which is ofcourse unacceptable. We therefore developed a method called geNorm to evaluate candidate reference genes with respect to their expression stability.’

geNorm was a really popular method, and Vandesompele and the team received enthusiastic feedback from other researchers but the article didn’t fit into the mould of what traditional publishers wanted to publish.

We tried several established journals and got feedback ranging from “too specialized, not relevant, known problem”, often directly from the editor.’

At the time, Genome Biology was new and didn’t have an established reputation, so submitting the manuscript to the journal was a bit risky. But the editor and reviewers were keen, and published the article in 2002.

The number of people accessing the article online and citing it in other articles was quite a surprise and showed what the research community think is important doesn’t always match up with traditional publishing models. The open access model meant that researchers could view an important article in a new journal without having to pay to see it, and brought recognition to a method that could improve practice among scientists.

Today, Genome Biology has a higher impact factor, and publishes lots of other important articles, but the geNorm article remains among the most popular with researchers. Pretty good for an article that almost never got published at all.

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