Cite Me

Jun 14 2011 Published by under publishing, reviews and reviewing

A reader wonders:

When reviewing a manuscript submitted to a journal, is there any good way to recommend to an author that they add a citation of your own work?

This issue is wrapped up with that of reviewer anonymity, so there are a couple of sub-questions here:

- If you are concerned about anonymity but you really really think your paper(s) should be cited, can you disguise your suggestion (to the author, but not the editor) as being from a disinterested and totally objective observer?

- Even if you don't care about being anonymous, how do you suggest that your paper be cited and not come off as a self-promoting citation-monger (assuming you even care what people think)?

To get the discussion rolling, I have encountered the following cite-me situations just in the past couple of months:

1. I was reviewing a paper that used what I thought was an unnecessarily convoluted approach to a particular topic. What they did was OK.. but if they had used my elegant method (the topic of a paper published in the last few years), the paper would be better.

In this case, I decided not to suggest that they use (and cite!) my work. What they did was not a major flaw of the paper, and I considered the issue in question to be more one of style and clarity. Of course, style and particularly clarity are important for papers, but the problem was not so grave in this case that I felt compelled to suggest that they cite my paper. I mentioned only that Method A was unnecessarily complex (with some brief elaboration of why), but left it to the authors (and editor) to agree or disagree with that, and find a different method if they chose (mine or someone else's).

2. In my role as editor of another journal, I was handling a manuscript on a topic on which there are very few published articles, but one of those few published articles happens to be from my research group. The manuscript under review did not cite our paper, and in fact didn't even cite any of the other recent papers on this topic, but instead cited only some 20+ year old, tangentially-related studies. Hooray for not forgetting about old papers, but why ignore highly relevant work published in the last 5 years?

Even trickier than making a cite-me comment in a review is making this comment as an editor. Reviewers suggest; editors decide, so we have to be very careful. I think if the author had cited some of the other recent studies but just not our paper, I would have let it go and merely been a bit puzzled as to why an obvious and relevant paper was not cited. As it was, I thought the lack of any citations of the most relevant literature severely undermined the paper, particularly in the introduction and discussion. Without being too heavy-handed (I think/hope), I suggested that the author consider the literature on Topic X a bit more broadly, and gave a few more specific suggestions of topics (but not particular papers) to consider. Even a brief search on a few keywords will lead to my paper and a few others.

3. Also in my role as editor, I handled two recent manuscripts in which two different reviewers took two different approaches to stating that it would be appropriate for an author to cite their papers. Both reviewers were not shy about making their identities known -- in fact, they each considered it central to having their review comments taken seriously by the authors.

One reviewer was very emphatic that the manuscript under review was fatally flawed without citation of his published work. I agreed that it was surprising that his work was not cited, and that the paper would be better for the citations (and the accompanying contextual discussion), but I think "fatal flaw" was an exaggeration. Unfortunately, "fatal flaw" did apply to the data/methods, a situation perhaps indirectly related to the incompleteness of the citations.

The other reviewer very politely and tentatively and circuitously said that although he hated to suggest that his own work be cited, the authors might want to take a look at his 2006 paper and an earlier paper, and they would then see that their statement that no one had ever before proposed Idea Z or used Method Y to do X was in fact not correct. Again, I agreed with the reviewer that a more correct and complete citation of the literature, including these specific papers by the reviewer, was appropriate.

In fact, in most cases that I have seen as editor, I have agreed with the cite-me comments of reviewers. From what I have seen, it is rare for a cite-me review comment to be frivolous and obviously craven. I am sure it happens, but I think it may be more common for there to be other citation lapses, such as:

- authors who cite their own work heavily and perhaps not very relevantly;

- mis-citation of papers (example);

- non-citation of relevant papers (another example).

So now we are back to the original question. If I think that citation of a not-yet-cited paper of mine is useful to the paper under review, I won't stress out (too much) about appearing like a jerk and will politely mention the paper(s) that seem relevant and explain my reasoning. If I care about staying anonymous in the review, I may not bother to mention the missing citation, or -- if I feel strongly about it -- I could mention it only to the editor.

Of course the whole reason why we are discussing what might seem like a trivial issue is the increasing reliance on citation numbers as a measure of scholarly "quality". Numbers like the h-index now regularly appear in tenure and promotion files and letters of recommendation. If a paper that could/should be cited (but is not) in a paper under review is one with citation numbers just below the cut-off for your h-index, it can set off an internal struggle of the sort mentioned in the original question.

If you have asked yourself this same question whilst reviewing a manuscript, what did you do?

18 responses so far

  • Mac says:

    I have suggested what I believe to be appropriate citations of my work. I wouldn't suggest it in cases where it's just one more example or to bump up my h-index (tempting though it is!) but if I think it's relevant I'll suggest it. I don't worry too much about staying anonymous because it seems like any paper I've reviewed that failed to cite a relevant paper of mine also failed to cite other relevant papers so mine is just one of a list of suggested papers. I do love reviewers that give you a list of 15 papers by a single author and still stay "anonymous".

  • Confounding says:

    Two stories of mine, and how I handled them. They're not directly related, but there you have it:

    1. I've only once gotten a review back suggesting an additional citation. Our failure to cite them had actually been an oversight, so we were quite grateful for the review to point this out.

    2. Once, when reviewing a paper, I came across a bit with "Confounding et al. says..." with a citation to a paper I had written where we said...not that. I spent the better part of an hour trying to phrase my comment that this is really not what those authors said in a neutral way, and did my level best to be critical of the other citations in the paper.

  • JJ says:

    Hi,

    Once I found a mis-citation of a couple of papers that turned out to be a non-citations of some papers of mine :-)...

    Without explicitely pointing to my papers, I suggested them that the cited papers were not appropriate. I added that I thought that some recent papers from a given PI (mine :-) ) had investigated that issue.... So, they could decide which papers they thought were the most relevant and they wanted to cite...

    It worked...

  • moom says:

    If I do recommend that an author cites my work, it's usually my already very heavily cited papers that won't affect my h-index. If an author claims something hasn't been done before and it has, I'll be sure to correct them. Also if they claim someone else initiated an approach I'll correct them too. Otherwise, it is often that they just cite some really old papers in a long meandering discussion. Then I can often suggest they cite recent reviews by myself and others instead. I recommend to reject far more papers that cite me than suggest that I be cited in papers that do get published in the journals I am reviewing for.

  • Dr. Lowly says:

    I have been very tempted a few times to suggest that articles I am reviewing cite my recent and relevant work on exactly the same topic, but I cannot bring myself to do it. I am very early in my scientific career, and the benefits of a potential additional citation are far outweighed by the potential danger of leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the editor and/or author(s).

    On the other side, I have been appalled a few times when Famous Scientist X tells me blatantly in a review or in person that 5 citations to X's work are insufficient, and I should have also cited (X et al, 1988b). X is already so well-established that I can't imagine him needing more citations from a lowly one such as myself. But perhaps this is why Dr. X is so famous in the first place.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Totally ok to suggest citing your own work, just as with any other glaring lack of a citation. And I say it the same way whether it concerns my papers or those from another group. Usually just "recent work of the Smith lab showed..." or similar.

  • SLAC prof says:

    In a somewhat related situation, I had an editor suggest I cite their not closely related work in a paper. I kept looking and looking for some paper that was really relevant, never found one, and figured out a creative way to bring in a citation of their work since it seemed to determine the fate of my paper. That seemed like an abuse of power but the paper ended up getting published.

  • Alex says:

    I have sometimes suggested that the authors address a key issue, and then in explaining the issue I've cited several papers, including (but not limited to) my own. I felt kind of bad the last time that happened, because the authors cited me in the revision without really addressing the point, so I thought that maybe they thought I was trolling for a citation. The editor accepted the revised paper without sending it back to me, or I would have said that merely adding the citation is irrelevant to what the authors are doing (or, more accurately, not doing).

    Oh, well.

  • editor_gal says:

    Regarding your last paragraph - I'd argue that careful and thorough citations to the literature are not just for evaluations but (more importantly) keep science as a whole moving forward. It's embarrassing when people just repeat experiments that have already been done (whether in the last 5 years or 50), yet I see it all the time. So, as an editor myself, please consider this a call to action - ALWAYS mention specific citations that undercut the novelty of the paper you're reviewing, even if it's your own.

  • If merited, I always suggest they cite me and all the other important citations they missed. Generally the reason the editor sent me the paper if it is related to my work is specifically because it is related to my work.

  • Many authors are terrible about not including relevant citations—it is as if they've never been in a library or learned how to do the literature review phase of research. I don't expect comprehensive reviews of the literature (except in review articles), but glaring holes should be filled. I'm more likely to recommend someone else's paper than one of my own, but relevant papers by my students should get proper credit.

    The worst citation abuses are massive self-citation with no citation of other research groups—the not-invented-here syndrome almost always marks bad research.

  • Cherish says:

    While I've not yet experienced the joy of reviewing papers, my husband has, and I've gotten to listen to him grumble. In those cases, he's noticed that if a paper is overlooking some relevant work, it's probably not just missing a single citation. It's more likely an omission of a lot of relevant research. In that case, it's easy to suggest topic areas that should be more heavily cited, perhaps giving some examples. (Of course, the danger in giving examples is that they may chose to use those examples and not include anything else relevant.)

  • sustainable says:

    Great topic! I've struggled with this quite a bit, mostly in a context in which the author has mis-cited my work. One of my earliest papers got results contrary to every previous paper on the topic, but frequently gets lumped in with the others - as in, "Cats are superior sleeping companions to dogs (Smith et al., 1988; Jones & Doe, 2005; Me & Mentor, 2004)" when in fact Me & Mentor (2004) found no difference. As others have noted though, when authors make this error they usually make others, and so there are enough comments in the review that my identity is (I hope) obscured.

  • GMP says:

    Often, as others said above, the authors ignore a whole body of work where multiple groups are involved, so it's usually not a problem to suggest several representative papers, among which may be one of mine. I don't think that necessarily endangers anonymity.

    Like gasstationwithoutpumps, I am royally peeved by people whose list of references is 80% their own work (they are never the giants in the field, mind you) and I always comment in such cases that the reference list does not do justice to the state of the art in the field, and that such excessive self-citing is unacceptable and misleading. Proper coverage of the field in the reference list is, in my opinion, a necessary prerequisite for publication.

  • adam says:

    As reviewer I certainly recommend that authors cite my work where relevant and I don't see anything wrong with it as long as it is indeed relevant and as long as I also do a reasonable job of recommending other relevant citations by others (recognizing that my own papers are more at my fingertips...)

    About anonymity, I either reveal my identity, or bury the recommendations that they cite my papers in a longer list of citations by others so that it is not obvious which (if any) of the authors I am.

    I don't think one should go out of one's way to push for citations of one's own papers, and I certainly was grossed out when I was young by very super senior big shots who bullied me about not citing their papers enough - even outside of the review process (once I got an email to this effect, out of the blue apropos of nothing, from a very big shot whom I barely knew) - when they certainly didn't need the citations and in fact I was citing them at a reasonable rate. But neither do I understand people on the other end of the spectrum who are squeamish about recommending that anyone cite their papers ever and think it is some kind of ethical lapse to do so. The fact that your papers are relevant is one of the reasons the editor asked you to be a reviewer in the first place.

  • Astra says:

    I once had an editor complain that we didn't cite his work when his group were the first ones to publish a result. I replied that a) we did cite their work in two other places in the manuscript and b) we didn't use their result in that particular case because the reason they were the first to publish was because they hadn't spent time doing things like, oh, establish an uncertainty on the number. He accepted that.

  • SeeBee says:

    Yeah, I once apologetically demanded a citation in a paper I was reviewing. Why? Because they obviously very closely paraphrased (borderline plagiarized) large sections of a paper from my Masters. Including citing obscure references like government documents from my country (they were in a different country from me country) in the same order I cited them in.

    Of course, I also recommended the paper was rejected (as did reviewer #2), so no h-index padding was to be had, anyway.

  • Alexis says:

    I used to work as an administrative assistant for an editor of an academic journal, and saw many reviews come in where the reviewer requested a citation of their own work. Sometimes the citation request obviously revealed the identity of the reviewer (e.g. three works of the reviewer and no other additional citations were suggested), and sometimes the identity was obscured (e.g. the request of including the reviewer's own published work was included along with a list of other works to cite). Sometimes the citation request appeared 'egotistical' (e.g. when the review was literally 3 sentences long and offered no other comments other than "this paper stinks as evidenced by the fact that you did not cite this [my] work"), but most of the time the requests were accompanied by a paragraph of reasoning for the citation and were only part of longer, thorough reviews.

    Finally, as someone who has seen the great variation in both submission and review quality, I would say that reviewers really shouldn't worry about appearing egotistical. Many reviews are beyond harsh - outright mean in fact ("How did this author even graduate from college??!! My two-year-old could produce better analysis!!"). If you are a somewhat considerate human being who doesn't take advantage of reviewer anonymity as an excuse for bashing the works of others with less-than-constructive-criticism (and oh, criticism can be unconstructive!), then the author in question will undoubtedly appreciate the review that you produce if they have any sense of self confidence.

    As a very junior scientist (have not even applied to grad school yet), I am very appreciative for the time that I spent working at an academic journal -- Unbridled criticism and rejection are no longer on my list of fears!

    P.S. Thanks for your blog, FSP! You answer a lot of questions that I am afraid to ask.