Addressing the Issue of Self-citation

When we look at both sides of the issue of self-citation (see previous post), we see that self-citation certainly has a place in the scientific community. But we also need to be wary of excessive self-citation as an exploitative tactic. And, although most scientists concur that excessive self-citation is an issue, there is little agreement about what constitutes too much or a potential solution.

One step we can take, however, is to examine the ratio of citations received to the number of papers in which those citations appear. If, for example, an author receives a large number of citations from a large number of papers, that means they receive citations at many points throughout each paper. This metric, especially when combined with a dedicated self-citation metric, can flag down excessive self-citation.

Another approach is more systemic. The crux of this issue comes down to larger concerns about an over-reliance on citation metrics for making decisions about funding, tenure and more. Sanjay Srivastava, a psychologist from the University of Oregon in Eugene, told Nature, “When we link professional advancement and pay attention too strongly to citation-based metrics, we incentivize self-citation.”

Essentially, the problem does not lie with the researchers who abuse the system but with the system itself. In today’s data-driven world, we’re always looking for metrics to measure success or failure. When it comes to scientific research, however, citation numbers may not be the metric we need. Instead, we should encourage editors and reviewers to take a critical eye to unwarranted self-citation. We should focus more on peer review and the quality of one’s research, not just the quantity of citations a paper receives.

The Takeaway

Self-citation is one of the many challenges that today’s research community must face. In this interconnected world, where going “viral” equates to an exponential growth in opportunity, scientists, like everyone else, are trying to find the best way to achieve this daunting feat. That’s why some have landed on excessive self-citation.

Still, the culture is pushing back. “Self-citing is often frowned upon, being considered (and sometimes in) vanity, egotism, or an attempt in self-advertising,” concludes Scientific American. “However, everyone self-cites because, sooner or later, everyone builds upon previous findings.”

Thus, we need to hold each other accountable and hold ourselves accountable for a moderate approach to self-citation. A big part of this is due diligence and due care. Double-checking sources and credentials is more important now than ever before. Keep in mind that high citation counts don’t necessarily mean higher quality research.

At the end of the day, it’s up to us to reign in excessive self-citation and to promote a system that more accurately rewards high-quality science.