12/03/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

'Hot' Papers Point to Key Research on HIV/AIDS

To mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Thomson Reuters ScienceWatch combed the contents of the more than 12,000 scientific and scholarly journals indexed in Thomson Reuters Web of Science to extract an elite selection of research reports on HIV and AIDS. This undertaking posed a particular challenge: given the volume of activity in the field -- nearly 50,000 papers published over the last two years mention "HIV" or "AIDS" -- how does one distinguish the truly consequential research?

The answer is to let scientists themselves show the way. A central tenet of scholarly ethics holds that, in writing up their research and describing their results for publication, scientists must explicitly acknowledge the previous advances upon which they are building -- the work that has inspired, informed, or guided their research. They do this by providing detailed footnotes to specific publications. Each instance of such acknowledgement constitutes a "citation" to the previous work. Tabulating these citations, as Thomson Reuters does in its Web of Science, points to research that can be quantitatively assessed as influential and useful in the judgment of the scientific community.

To identify significant, recent work in HIV/AIDS, Thomson Reuters focused on a particular variety of highly cited report: the "hot" paper -- published in the last two years and cited at a level notably higher than papers of comparable type and age published in the same journal. In other words, papers that, in terms of their significance and utility in the eyes of scientists, are particularly fast out of the gate.

Here is a quick breakdown of the study's key findings:

  • Hottest Research Trends: Many of the most highly cited papers focused on the identification of powerful antibodies able to neutralize the broad range of HIV-1 viruses.
  • Top Funders: The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) dominated funding acknowledgements with more mentions than twice the amount of the second leading organization.
  • Top Institutions: Harvard and Scripps Research Institute tied for top honors.
  • Hottest Researchers: Dennis R. Burton of Scripps Research Institute and Barton F. Hayes of Duke University School of Medicine tie, with each contributing to five of the hottest papers.

In HIV/AIDS research, 20 papers met the criteria, having been indexed by Thomson Reuters in the last two years and having quickly garnered significant citation totals as reflected in the footnotes of newly published reports.

The most cited of these papers appeared in the British journal Nature: "Broad neutralization coverage of HIV by multiple highly potent antibodies" (L.M. Walker, et al., 477 [7365]: 466-70, 2011). Despite its comparatively young age, the paper has already been cited more than 200 times. This report, along with several others among the 20, discusses the identification of powerful antibodies that have demonstrated a broad ability to neutralize variant forms of the HIV-1 virus, which causes AIDS. This work on broadly neutralizing antibodies has revitalized the ongoing quest for an HIV vaccine.

Along with presenting the papers themselves, Thomson Reuters examined this cohort of reports to identify the main players behind the research. For example, the Web of Science compiles data on funding agencies whose support is explicitly acknowledged in published papers. Among the 20 hot reports on HIV/AIDS, the most frequently mentioned funding entity is the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Whether mentioned under the main NIH name or one its component agencies, such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the NIH is acknowledged in 16 of the 20 papers. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative is also conspicuous, listed as a funder in seven reports.

The analysis also included identifying the institutions whose affiliated researchers -- the actual authors of the papers -- accounted for the highest numbers of these hot reports. By this measure, Harvard University and the Scripps Research Institute of La Jolla, Calif., share top honors. At both institutions, researchers collectively fielded seven reports out of the 20.

Scripps, in fact, is also prominent in the remaining aspect by which this core of influential AIDS papers was assessed: the individual researchers who contributed to multiple hot reports. Atop the list is Scripps researcher Dennis R. Burton, who coauthored five of the 20 papers. Six of his Scripps colleagues, meanwhile, distinguished themselves by contributing to three of more publications. The NIAID also wins a share of bragging rights, with four of its authors included among the prolific authors of these highly cited reports.

For all the authors and institutions behind these key papers, the citations demonstrate that their work is currently of central importance in the ongoing campaign against HIV/AIDS.

Click here to learn more about the trends, people, funders and institutions that are leading the fight against HIV/AIDS.