Self-citation: What is it and should you try to avoid doing it?

This is an easy question to answer: basically, the practice of ‘self-citation’ is exactly what it sounds like. An author writing a research paper includes and cites their own previously published work. This is fine, up to a point, but there can be an issue here when authors list their own work to the exclusion of other published papers or to simply boost their own citation rates. Self-citation happens all the time and can occur in various ways; one recent study points to geographic biases in this practice. Apparently, authors from some parts of the world are more likely to excessively self-cite than others: hundreds of extremely self-citing scientists are revealed in a new database and, indeed, in some cases, do seem to be heavily self-promoting. This is generally something to avoid in your own writing.


The new data set lists around 100,000 researchers and shows that at least 250 scientists from around the world have amassed more than 50% of their citations from themselves or their co-authors. The median self-citation rate is 12.7%. These new data are interesting, flag issues with the practice of self-citation, and appear at a key moment when funding agencies, journals, and others are focusing more and more on the potential problems caused by excessive self-citation. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) highlighted the issue of extreme self-citation this July as one key form of citation manipulation that journals, editors, and publishers should address. This issue also highlights broader concerns about an over-reliance on citation metrics for making decisions about hiring, promotions, and research funding across academia.


One key thing to keep in mind is that you are likely not the only researcher working in a particular area: for this reason, it’s important to keep your citations balanced and fair. Just because you disagree with someone does not mean you should not cite them in your work; indeed, we can teach you techniques to set up your arguments and frame your hypotheses that necessitate the inclusion of papers that disagree with your own views. Excessive self-citation is also a red flag to editors and peer reviewers.


People ask: what does a paper with a balanced citation list look like? There are no hard and fast rules, but good, well-structured and well-argued articles tend to provide a clear overview of the ‘state of the art’ (the current thinking, from all perspectives, on a particular question) as well as a smattering of historical work in the area to set the scene. You will want to set up the introduction to your papers with three basic sections: a good clear statement of the question your work addresses and why it’s important, an effective overview of the ‘state-of-the-art’ relating to this issue, and a clear snappy statement to finish with that tells the reader what your article is going to be covering. The introductions of well-written academic articles tend to end with statements like ‘the aim of this paper is to …’, or ‘here we show’. Take a look at any paper published in Nature or Science.


It’s also a very good idea, before starting to write, to examine a recent research paper in your field that you tend to refer to a lot. Perhaps a landmark paper that sets the scene for much of your own research. Almost certainly, because it’s highly cited in your field, this paper will present a fair and balanced view of the literature. This is what you are aiming for as an author. These days it is possible, of course, to cite almost anything in a research article, but again: the rule of thumb is that if you are aiming to publish a peer-reviewed paper, your reference list should preferentially include other papers of this type. Aim to cite just from the peer-reviewed literature if possible; avoid citing conference abstracts, online materials, or discussion-based content if you want your own academic work to be taken seriously.


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