Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science

From a sample of 732 scientific abstracts drawn from the climate change literature, we find that articles with more narrative abstracts are cited more often

Ann Hillier


Scholarcy summary


  • Climate change is among the most compelling issues confronting science and society, and climate science as a research endeavor has grown over the past decade.
  • It is increasingly important that individual articles be presented in a way that facilitates the uptake of climate science and increases the salience of their individual research contributions.
  • Evidence from psychology and literary theory suggests that audiences better understand and remember narrative writing in comparison with expository writing [2,3], and new evidence from neuroscience has revealed a specific region in the brain that is activated by stories [4].
  • Narrative writing tells a story through related events [5], whereas expository writing relates facts without much social context.
  • Presenting the same information in a more narrative way has the potential to increase its uptake—an especially attractive prospect in the context of climate science and scientific writing generally—and narratives are widely recognized as powerful tools of communication [2,6]


  • Abstract Selection

    We analyzed abstracts instead of the full text of selected papers because the abstract typically is the first section of the paper viewed by readers; the abstract is the only section of the paper immediately available on databases such as PubMed [22].
  • We reasoned that it takes a number of years for papers to accrue a number of citations—and for a set of papers to develop a distribution of citation counts—that would allow us to test our core hypothesis.
  • We began this study in 2015, and chose 5-to-6 years as a reasonable window, allowing for citations to accrue, but not letting the papers become outdated.
  • Knowing that citations accrue to individual papers nonlinearly over time, we recognized the difficulty in using the available data to derive time-correction factors for each paper in the dataset.
  • We featured only papers from a narrow time window, minimizing the effect of time-since-publication on the distribution of citations in our dataset


  • Four of six narrative elements were positively associated with article citation frequency (Fig 1).
  • We obtained similar results when holding the year of publication constant (S2 and S3 Figs) and when analyzing the same dataset with outliers excluded (S1 Fig), indicating that neither publication year nor extreme data points substantially affect the trends we report here.
  • The use of sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity, and appeal to the reader are significantly correlated with article citation frequency.
  • PC1 index of narrativity is significantly correlated with article citation frequency.
  • Spearman correlations are given along with associated p-values.
  • P-values are given for Wilcoxon rank-sum tests


  • Our results reveal that—at least among the set of peer-reviewed climate change literature included in our dataset—articles featuring more narrative writing styles are more often cited.
  • This effect is independent of year of publication, number of authors, or abstract length.
  • Of the narrative elements we tested for, the use of sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity between sentences, and appeal to the reader all positively and significantly influenced citation frequency.
  • Of these four attributes, appeal [i.e., to the reader] is perhaps most broadly construed and least understood.
  • It could be the case that appeal is positively associated with narrativity because, in the context of climate science, authors are likely to offer a recommendation that is identifiable to or understood by the reader

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