AbstractMany believe that the quality of a scientific publication is as good as the science it cites. However, quantifications of how features of reference lists affect citations remain sparse. We examined seven numerical characteristics of reference lists of 50,878 research articles published in 17 ecological journals between 1997 and 2017. Over this period, significant changes occurred in reference lists’ features. On average, more recent papers have longer reference lists and cite more high Impact Factor papers and fewer non-journal publications. We also show that highly cited articles across the ecological literature have longer reference lists, cite more recent and impactful references, and include more self-citations. Conversely, the proportion of ‘classic’ papers and non-journal publications cited, as well as the temporal span of the reference list, have no significant influence on articles’ citations. From this analysis, we distill a recipe for crafting impactful reference lists, at least in ecology.