A statistical analysis of full text downloads of articles in Elseviers ScienceDirect covering all disciplines reveals large differences in download frequencies, their skewness, and their correlation with Scopus-based citation counts, between disciplines, journals, and document types. Download counts tend to be two orders of magnitude higher and less skewedly distributed than citations. A mathematical model based on the sum of two exponentials does not adequately capture monthly download counts.
The degree of correlation at the article level within a journal is similar to that at the journal level in the discipline covered by that journal, suggesting that the differences between journals are to a large extent discipline specific. Despite the fact that in all study journals download and citation counts per article positively correlate, little overlap may exist between the set of articles appearing in the top of the citation distribution and that with the most frequently downloaded ones.
Usage and citation leaks, bulk downloading, differences between reader and author populations in a subject field, the type of document or its content, differences in obsolescence patterns between downloads and citations, different functions of reading and citing in the research process, all provide possible explanations of differences between download and citation distributions.