Virus Research

Publication Analysis 1999-2010
by Kathleen Gransalke, Labtimes 07/2012


View the Tables: Europe...and the World, Most Cited Authors...and Papers

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Same old, same old in virus research land, so it seems. Not much has changed during the last six years, since we did our first virology ranking. The same countries and the same most-cited authors are still at the top.

What are viruses? Are they alive? Do they deserve their own branch on the Tree of Life? These are questions we, luckily, didn’t have to answer for this publication analysis because not even the experts can agree on an ultimate definition. Some researchers, however, settled on simply calling them “organisms at the edge of life”.


Sculpture of the bacteriophage ÆX174 created using 3-D beadweaving. Photo: Sculpture by H. Wichman; surface by A. Johnston, photo by J. Palmersheim, National Science Foundation

Whatever they are, one thing is certain, viruses cause a multitude of diseases: rabies, polio, smallpox, measles and even cancer. Their host range is as wide as the world they live in. Viruses can infect every life form on Earth, starting form bacteria over archaea to eukaryotes including plants and animals. Viruses can even infect themselves as a research group involving microbiologist Didier Raoult from Aix-Marseille Université showed. In 2008, they discovered the first such virophage, which they named Sputnik, inside the giant virus Mamavirus. And just a few weeks ago, Raoult and co. discovered Sputnik 2 in the giant Lentille virus (PNAS, 2012 Oct 15 [Epub ahead of print]). Viruses are thus always good for a surprise (finding).

Second round of virus research ranking

Before we go to the naked numbers, a little bit about our methodology. As a matter of fact, this current ranking of virus research heralds the second round of our publication analyses. Back in 2006, just as Lab Times saw the light of day, we began with this very discipline. Does anyone still remember?

In contrast to the ranking six years ago, we have, this time, widened the publication period to twelve years, from 1999 to 2010. In 2006, we only looked at papers published within a time window of seven years, from 1999 to 2005. Similar to our first virus research ranking, we have again encountered a few imponderables. As explained several times before, when compiling the numbers for our country rankings, we have to rely on so-called expert journals listed in Web of Science’s ‘virology’ category. Those expert journals include amongst others Acta Virologica, Journal of Medical Virology and Aids. For our Most-Cited Heads ranking, we were able to include all journals, regardless of whether they belong to the multidisciplinary or ‘monodisciplinary’ types. This approach, however, caused us to stumble across an old problem. When is a hepatitis researcher a virologist and when is he a hepatologist simply with an increased interest in virally-transmitted hepatitis? To ease our decision dilemma, we decided to come up with a simple criterion. When more than 60% of publications of a given liver scientist contained the search term ‘virus’ or ‘viral’, we considered them to be fit for our virus research ranking.

Now, as promised, the numbers. Starting, as usual, with the individual country performances. This time, we can also compare these numbers with those from six years ago. Interestingly, not much has changed: all the countries that made the top 20 six years ago also secured themselves a spot in the 2012 ranking. Even more interesting, the top seven firmly defended their 2006 positions. England is still the top-dog of virus research, followed by France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Most countries on positions eight to 20 only climbed or fell one or two positions. The biggest loser, however, is Israel tumbling from 11th to 15th place. In general, the average citation per article value is exceptionally high in virus research. Front runner here is Austria with 26.1 citations per article, closely followed by Scotland with 26.

Compared with the rest of the world, European virus research is on par with that of the USA – at least when it comes to the number of virus research papers. Articles by US American virus researchers are simply cited slightly more often.

Aids, cervical cancer and hepatitis

And what are those 30,000 articles published between 1999 and 2010 about? Looking at our Most-Cited Heads, we are revealed some clues about the hottest topics in virus research. High on the research agenda is the study of the HI virus that causes one of the worst scourges of humanity: Aids. According to a 2011 WHO survey, there are 34.2 million people living with HIV. In 2011, 2.5 million people newly-infected themselves with the retrovirus and 1.7 million died (despite excellent advances in the development of anti­viral drugs). Also, the human papillomavirus has been studied extensively, culminating in the development of an effective vaccine that stops it in its malicious tracks. Other research favourites among our top 20 virus researches are the influenza virus and hepatitis viruses. It’s also worth mentioning that our virus research ranking is mostly populated by physicians working at University Hospitals across Europe.

Finally, let’s see who are the most-cited virus researchers in 2012? Are the same old acquaintances still on top? Indeed, the top five of the 2006 virus research ranking still managed to enter the 2012 ranking, along with six more of their colleagues. Chris J. L. M. Meijer from the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam climbed from position three to the number one spot with 25,641 citations of his 408 papers. Meijer’s research centres on the human papillomavirus and its notorious tendency to cause cervical cancer. His most highly-cited landmark paper “Human papillomavirus is a necessary cause of invasive cervical cancer worldwide” has accumulated almost 3,000 citations thus far. Also involved with the study of the human papillomavirus and co-authors of the above-mentioned paper are Nubia Munoz (6th), F. Xavier Bosch (7th) and Peter J. F. Snijders (13th).

Studying influenza viruses has in recent times been a less smooth business. Ron A. M. Fouchier (8th) and Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus (2nd) had to fight hard to get their paper “Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets” published (Science;336(6088):1534-41). Even though the paper is now out, the recommended moratorium on H5N1 research still stands. Fouchier, who has been named one of the most influential people in the world in 2012 by Time magazine, recently wrote in a mBio commentary about lifting the research ban, “The benefits of H5N1 virus transmission research may or may not result in immediate applications – accumulating knowledge in basic research is an incremental process. However, we believe that our best way to limit the impact of pandemics is to be better prepared than we are now by knowing more about the pathogen and how it may evolve.” Therefore, Fouchier et al. call all groups who have governmental biosafety-approval to resume their studies.

Controversial research topics

Research on hepatitis is less controversial. Even though hepatitis can also be caused by toxins or other infections, the main cause is hepatitis viruses. Thus, Ralf Bartenschlager (17th) and his team are interested in studying those viruses, in particular the hepatitis C virus (HCV), through HCV cell culture systems. Patrick Marcellin (11th) on the other hand, nestles at the other end of the virus spectrum – the treatment of hepatitis patients with antiviral drugs.

Antiviral drugs, which are often nucleoside analogues, are also important for treating HIV patients. Jan Balzarini (23rd), for example, authored almost 600 papers, describing drugs effective against HIV and the hepatitis B virus. Together with Eric de Clercq (3rd) and the late Antonín Holý (Charles University, Prague), he developed the antiretroviral drug Tenofovir, which blocks the viral reverse transcriptase. Last year, Balzarini and colleagues showed that topical Tenofovir also inhibits herpes simplex virus-2 replication (Cell Host & Microbe, 10(4):379-89). Many of the remaining HIV researchers in our top 30, like Andrew N. Phillips (9th) and Bruno Ledergerber (26th) are epidemiologists, studying the effect of anti­retroviral therapy on HIV patients: complications or susceptibilities to other diseases like hepatitis.

Being able to understand viruses fully is the key to stopping them in their pathogenic tracks. And this can only be done through research without restrictions. As Ron Fouchier said, to avoid future pandemics we have to be better prepared, know more about viruses or simply be one step ahead of them.


View the Tables: Europe...and the World, Most Cited Authors...and Papers

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Last Changed: 07.02.2013




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