Highly cited articles are very different from ‘ordinary’ cited articles. Typically, they are authored by a large number of scientists, often involving international collaboration. The majority of the papers represent regular journal articles (81%), although review articles (12%) are over-represented compared to the national average. The citation curves of highly cited papers follow a typical pattern of rise and decline. However, different types of citation curves can be identified, reflecting possible differences in the cognitive function of the articles. Highly cited papers typically obtain citations from a large number of different journals and from papers representing both close and remote fields. However, this pattern is not very different from the average distribution for all papers. We discuss how the findings can be explained by introducing a conceptual distinction between quality dynamics and visibility dynamics.