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; Ryan P. Kelly; Terrie Klinger


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]


  • Methods Abstract


    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and chose 5-to-6 years as a reasonable window, allowing for citations to accrue, but not letting the papers become outdated.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


  • Individual Indicators of Narrativity

    Four of six narrative elements were positively associated with article citation frequency (Fig 1).
  • Following ordination of the six narrative elements using PCA, PC1 served as our index of narrativity, and was significantly correlated with log(citations) (R2 = 0.05, p = 10−9; Fig 1).
  • PC1 (Narrativity index) varied significantly among journals (p = 10−15), and correlated strongly and positively with log journal impact factor (R2 = 0.62, p = 6 x 10−5; carried out on PC1 journal means to avoid pseudoreplication), such that higher-impact journals tended to have more narrative articles (Fig 2).
  • We found no citation effect for abstract length after accounting for journal; papers with more authors had subtly, but significantly, more citations than those with fewer authors even after controlling for journal (log(N authors), p < 10−6; each additional author was associated with an additional 0.4 citations in the dataset).


  • 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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