Monday, June 28, 2021

Thoughts on who are the most influential suicidologists


June 28, 2021

9:30 am




David Lester


            There is a great deal of interest these days on ranking the leading suicide researchers (as there is in other fields). It is far from easy to make judgments about this issue.


Problems with Criteria for Greatness


            The use of Google Scholar for determining the top suicidologists is hindered by the fact that most researchers explore topics other than suicide. For example, of my own 35 papers published in 2020, only 22 were on the topic of suicide or related issues. To take other examples, Thomas Joiner also studies eating disorders, while Steven Stack studies marriage and many other topics. Therefore, the total citations, h-index and i10-index are not accurate as measures of suicide research productivity and influence for researchers with multiple interests.


            The titles of articles may also be misleading, with or without subtitles. Heidi Hjelmeland and Birthe Loa Knizek’s article in Death Studies in 2021 has the title: The emperor’s new clothes? A critical look at the interpersonal theory of suicide. The word suicide is in the subtitle but not the title.


            My most cited article (6,785 citations as of June 25, 2021) is:


Beck, A. T., Weissman, A., Lester, D., & Trexler, L. (1974). The measurement of pessimism: the hopelessness scale. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 42, 861-865.


This paper is based on psychiatric patients who have attempted suicide, but the word suicide does not appear in the title or subtitle.


            Many researchers collaborate with others, and some work in teams. How much credit should each author get for one publication? Steven Stack and myself have published 16 articles and two books together. Here is a recent contributor list from a recent article of mine appearing in Psychiatry Research.


Conceptualization: Isabella Berardelli

Data collectiion: Salvatore Sarubbi, Elena Rogante, Denise Erbuto, Maria Rosaria Cifrodelli

Formal analysis: Salvatore Sarubbi, Marco Innamorati

Methodology: Isabella Berardelli, Elena Rogante, Denise Erbuto

Project administration: Maurizio Pompili, Isabella Berardelli

Supervision: Marco Innamorati, David Lester Maurizio Pompili

Original draft: Isabella Berardelli, Salvatore Sarubbi

Writing - review; editing: Marco Innamorati, David Lester, Maurizio Pompili


Does each contributor get one point for this article? In addition, in some departments, the head of the department gets his or her name on the article even if he or she did not contribute to it. Citation counts are also thought to be inadequate unless one distinguishes between citations by others and citations of one’s own works.


            There are some scholars who focus on one area of suicidology. For example, Andriessen, et al. (2015) identified the ten most cited articles on bereavement after a suicide which were published in (only) three core journals on suicide.


            The era may be thought to play a role. Researchers who were cited and influential in the 1950s may now no longer ever be mentioned. Because the volume of studies of suicide has increased dramatically in recent decades, so have citations. Perhaps the number of articles on suicide each year should be used to weight citation amounts?


Personal Judgments


            Then, of course, we can make our own personal judgments. I wrote reviews of the suicide literature from 1897 to 1997, trying to read every scholarly article, chapter and book on suicide. The review was published in four books with the title Why People Kill Themselves, covering the periods 1897 to 1967, the 1970s, the 1980s, and 1990-1997 after which the task became too time-consuming for me. Had I kept going, I would not have had enough time to conduct my own research.


            My choices were for greatness were:


1800s:  Emile Durkheim, of course. I would also now add Sigmund Freud who is responsible the theory of suicide as aggression directed toward the self, what Shneidman has called murder in the 180th degree.


1950s:  Andrew Henry and James Short (whose work has been relatively ignored (except by me) but whose integrated theory (sociological plus psychological) is quite remarkable.


1960s:  Edwin Shneidman and Norman Farberow, of course, but also Charles Neuringer for his ground-breaking work on the cognitive processes of suicidal individuals, and Alex Pokorny for drawing attention to the role of climate and other factors which had been neglected.


1970s:  Aaron Beck and David Phillips. Phillips is rarely cited these days, but his work on the role of the media was ground-breaking.


1980s:  Antoon Leenaars for his work on suicide notes, Steven Stack for his sociological studies, Stephen Platt for his work on unemployment, and David Lester (myself).


            It might be thought inappropriate to include myself, but here is part of my Wikipedia entry.


His work on suicide has focused on (1) crisis intervention by telephone, (2) preventing suicide by restricting access to the means for suicide, (3) studies of the diaries left by suicides, (4) suicide in the oppressed, including African American slaves, Native Americans, Holocaust victims, the Roma, and prisoners, (5) reviews of research on and theory concerning suicide from 1897 to 1997, and (6) innovative ideas including suicide as a dramatic act, suicide and culture, and suicide and the creative arts.


            Who would I choose for the 1990s? For the period1990-1997, I chose no one. I did not think that any creative researcher or theorist had appeared in those years. [1]


            For the period 1998-2021, I have not kept up with the literature, but I have written negative reviews on the state of the art in suicidology (The End of Suicidology, Nova, 2019). From my limited awareness of the suicidology literature (for 1897 to 1997, I was obsessive and compulsive in my search and perusal of everything), I would choose Thomas Joiner. There have been many critics of his theory and the domination by his former students and by himself of research, but there was a novel feature of the theory (the inclusion of burdensomeness), and there is no comparable recent theory to compete with Joiner’s.


            I would also choose Cas Soper whose writings are not well known, but he has thrown down the gauntlet in his arguments against traditional theory and research and argued for an evolutionary theory of suicide. In addition, Jie Zhang has proposed a new theory of suicide and conducted some major research studies in China.


            Two of my close colleagues (John Gunn and Steven Stack) also nominated Angus Deaton, Edward Klonsky, Matthew Nock, Rory O’Connor, and Ian Rockett.


            I may have missed an important figure or two, and each of you may choose different researchers and theorists. (You would be wrong, of course!)


Published Lists




            Expertscape ( ) based their rankings for 22,043 articles published since 2008 and compiled as of February 3, 2019. However, Expertscape searches only medical journals (PubMed) and so misses psychological and social sciences research. It is therefore, biased.


  Pompili, M

  Hawton, K

  Turecki, G

  Brent, D

  Joiner, T

  Oquendo, M

  Lester, D

  Nock, M

  Gunnell, D

  Mann, J John

  Sher, L

  De Leo, D

  Pirkis, J

  Serafini, G

  Yip, P S F

  Conwell, Y

  Girardi, P

  Rihmer, Z

  Innamorati, M

  Nordentoft, M

  Baca-García, E

  Gonda, X

  Sareen, J

  Milner, Allison

  Anestis, Michael

  Stanley, B

  Courtet, Philippe

  Hom, Melanie A

  Conner, K

  Apter, A

  Kõlves, Kairi

  Bossarte, R

  Large, M

  Wasserman, D

  Ilgen, Mark

  Robinson, Jo

  Erlangsen, A

  Kapur, Nav

  O'Connor, R

  Jollant, F

  Miller, Matthew

  Ballard, E

  Stanley, Ian H

  Chang, S-S

  Ribeiro, J D

  Bryan, Craig

  Caine, E

  Fazel, Seena

  Kessler, R C

  Baldessarini, R J

  Borges, G

  Zhang, Jie

  Gibbons, R

  Fountoulakis, Konstantinos N

  Wilcox, H

  Guillaume, S

  Amore, M

  Møller, H

  Page, A

  Bridge, Jeff


            Omitted 27,568 lower-scoring


            Apparently this list was based on simply the number of articles published with suicide in the title. One assumes that they searched for titles with suicid*. However, this list does not discriminate between articles and editorials/comments. Several of those on the list carry out very little research but, rather, publish brief comments on suicide (and other topics).


Vogelzang, et al. 2011


            Vogelzang, et al. (2011) search the Web of Science for articles on suicide PLUS depression, which obviously limits the range of articles on suicide, for the period 1900-2007. The top 15 researchers in order of number of publications were:


JJ Mann

MA Oquendo

Y Conwell

J Lönnqvist

A Apter

DA Brent

CF Reynolds

HY Meltzer

HS Akiskal

K Hawton

RJ Baldessarini

A Roy

J Angst

V Arango


            Clearly, this does not tap leading suicidologists. Only some of those on this list contribute meaningfully to suicidology.




            The lists provided by Ioannadis (2016) do not focus on suicide, but rather on all papers published by scholars. It is not easy, therefore, to identify the suicidologists, and it is impossible to identify the scores for only suicide research. Ionnadis ranks the top 2% of scholars in the world and his c scores for the top ten on the Expertscape list are shown below:


  Pompili, M                  3.83

  Hawton, K                  4.65

  Turecki, G                  4,23

  Brent, D                      not scored

  Joiner, T                      4.56

  Oquendo, M                4.02

  Lester, D                     4.40

  Nock, M                      4.45

  Gunnell, D                  4.40

  Mann, J John              3.77


Keith Hawton leads, with Thomas Joiner second.


Web of Science


            The Web of Science publishes the top 100 suicidologists based solely on the number of articles on the topic. The top 10 are shown below. I do wonder who anonymous is and how he or she is so prolific! The Web of Science appears to do the best job of capturing articles on suicide in all disciplines. 


D Lester                      1163

Anonymous                659

JJ Mann                      470

K Hawton                   370

M Pompili                   314

G. Turecki                   296

TE Joiner                    295

D Gunnell                   293

MA Oquendo 280

N Kapur                      234

D De Leo                    227




            Of course, it would appear to be objective if greatness could be quantified, but the numbers generated will always be criticized on some grounds. For myself, I prefer the subjective method, that is, my own evaluation of the contributions made by suicidologists!




Andriessen, K., Krysinska, K., & Stack, S. (2015). Predictors of article impact in suicidology. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 45, 18-24.

Ioannadis, J. P. N., Klavans, R., & Boyack, K. W. (2016). Multiple citation indicators and their composite across scientific disciplines. PLOS Biology, 14(7): e1002501

Lester, D. (1972, 1983, 1992, 2000). Why people kill themselves. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas.

Lester, D. (2019). The end of suicidology. Hauppauge, NY: Nova.

Vogelzang, B.H., Scutaru, C., Mache, S., Vitzthum, K., Quarcoo, D., & Groneberg, D. A. (2011). Depression and suicide publication analysis, using density equalizing mapping and output benchmarking. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 33(1), 59-65.


[1] For my proposals for these eras, I am not sure that, today, in 2021, I would include all of those listed above.