Universality of scaled citation distributions was claimed a decade ago but its theoretical justification has been lacking so far. Here, we study citation distributions for three disciplines—Physics, Economics, and Mathematics—and assess them using our explanatory model of citation dynamics. The model posits that the citation count of a paper is determined by its fitness: the attribute, which, for most papers, is set at the moment of publication. In addition, the papers’ citation count is related to the process by which the knowledge about this paper propagates in the scientific community. Our measurements indicate that the fitness distribution for different disciplines is nearly identical and can be approximated by the log-normal distribution, while the viral propagation process is discipline specific. The model explains which sets of citation distributions can be scaled and which cannot. In particular, we show that the near-universal shape of the citation distributions for different disciplines and for different citation years traces its origin to the nearly universal fitness distribution, while deviations from this shape are associated with the discipline-specific citation dynamics of papers.

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