Why aren't they citing my papers?

August 14, 2012

As the Impact Factor discussion has been percolating along (Stephen Curry, Björn Brembs, YHN) it has touched briefly on the core valuation of a scientific paper: Citations!

Coincidentally, a couple of twitter remarks today also reinforced the idea that what we are all really after is other people who cite our work.

More people should cite my papers.

I totally agree. More people should cite my papers. Often.


was a bit discouraged when a few papers were pub’ed recently that conceivably could have cited mine

Yep. I’ve had that feeling on occasion and it stings. Especially early in the career when you have relatively few publications to your name, it can feel like you haven’t really arrived yet until people are citing your work.

Before we get too far into this discussion, let us all pause and remember that all of the specifics of citation numbers, citation speed and citation practices are going to be very subfield dependent. Sometimes our best discussions are enhanced by dissecting these differences but let’s try not to act like nobody recognizes this, even though I’m going to do so for the balance of the post….

So, why might you not be getting cited and what can you do about it? (in no particular order)

1) Time. I dealt with this in a prior post on gaming the impact factor by having a lengthy pre-publication queue. The fact of the matter is that it takes a long time for a study that is primarily motivated by your paper to reach publication. As in, several years of time. So be patient.

2) Time (b). As pointed out by Odyssey, sometimes a paper that just appeared reached final draft status 1, 2 or more years ago and the authors have been fighting the publication process ever since. Sure, occasionally they’ll slip in a few new references when revising for yet the umpteenth time but this is limited.

3) Your paper doesn’t hit the sweet spot. Speaking for myself, my citation practices lean this way for any given point I’m trying to make. The first, best and most recent. Rationale’s vary and I would assume most of us can agree that the best, most comprehensive, most elegant and all around most scientifically awesome study is the primary citation. Opinions might vary on primacy but there is a profound sub-current that we must respect the first person to publish something. The most-recent is a nebulous concept because it is a moving target and might have little to do with scientific quality. But all else equal, the more recent citations should give the reader access to the front of the citation thread for the whole body of work. These three concerns are not etched in stone but they inform my citation practices substantially.

4) Journal identity. I don’t need to belabor this but suffice it to say some people cite based on the journal identity. This includes Impact Factor, citing papers on the journal to which one is submitting, citing journals thought important to the field, etc. If you didn’t happen to publish there but someone else did, you might be passed over.

5) Your paper actually sucks. Look, if you continually fail to get cited when you think you should have been mentioned, maybe your paper(s) just sucks. It is worth considering this. Not to contribute to Imposter Syndrome but if the field is telling you to up your game…up your game.

6) The other authors think your paper sucks (but it doesn’t). Water off a duck’s back, my friends. We all have our opinions about what makes for a good paper. What is interesting and what is not. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. Keep publishing.

7) Nobody knows you, your lab, etc. I know I talk about how anyone can find any paper in PubMed but we all need to remember this is a social business. Scientists cite people they know well, people they’ve just been chatting with at a poster session and people who have just visited for Departmental seminar. Your work is going to be cited more by people for whom you/it/your lab are most salient. Obviously, you can do something about this factor…get more visible!

8) Shenanigans (a): Sometimes the findings in your paper are, shall we say, inconvenient to the story the authors wish to tell about their data. Either they find it hard to fit it in (even though it is obvious to you) or they realize it compromises the story they wish to advance. Obviously this spans the spectrum from essentially benign to active misrepresentation. Can you really tell which it is? Worth getting angsty about? Rarely…..

9) Shenanigans (b): Sometimes people are motivated to screw you or your lab in some way. They may feel in competition with you and, nothing personal but they don’t want to extend any more credit to you than they have to. It happens, it is real. If you cite someone, then the person reading your paper might cite them. If you don’t, hey, maybe that person will miss it. Over time, this all contributes to reputation. Other times, you may be on the butt end of disagreements that took place years before. Maybe two people trained in a lab together 30 years ago and still hate each other. Maybe someone scooped someone back in the 80s. Maybe they perceived that a recent paper from your laboratory should have cited them and this is payback time.

10) Nobody knows you, your lab, etc II, electric boogaloo. Cite your own papers. Liberally. The natural way papers come to the attention of the right people is by pulling the threads. Read one paper and then collect all the cited works of interest. Read them and collect the works cited in that paper. Repeat. This is the essence of graduate school if you ask me. And it is a staple behavior of any decent scientist. You pull the threads. So consequently, you need to include all the thread-ends in as many of your own papers as possible. If you don’t, why should anyone else? Who else is most motivated to cite your work? Who is most likely to be working on related studies? And if you can’t find a place for a citation….

No Responses Yet to “Why aren't they citing my papers?”

  1. anon Says:

    Another possible sub-factor of time is time to impact. One of my top-cited papers had a flat citation rate for 7 years, and then citation rate suddenly doubled and has climbed rapidly ever since (original pub was 12 years ago). It is actually an anchor paper that launched an entire subfield, which takes time to get going, if it launches at all.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Oh for sure. The really great papers should follow this trajectory.


  3. qaz Says:

    What I hate is when there’s a paper written building off my work (usually they’ve done an experiment following our theoretical work) that doesn’t cite my paper and I write an email to the person saying “I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but this result was predicted in XYZ” and they write back and say “Yes, of course I know that paper, that’s why we did that experiment.” This has happened to me more than once.



  4. Confounding Says:

    The publication time lag is a big one. Once got some pushback for not citing a paper that hadn’t even been submitted when ours was accepted, even though they ended up hitting the presses at ~ the same time.


  5. AProf Says:

    I have been on the receiving end of 9(b) several times from several labs. There was a lab which built directly on a technique we introduced, but off-handedly cited us as “oh, btw, X also uses technique Y”. The sad thing is that the reviewers didn’t even cotton on to it and the paper got published.

    Unfortunately there’s something about a young-looking woman PI that makes the world believe that they are in perpetual competition with her. Any suggestions on how to improve the situation?


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    You were cited…yet you seem to feel the paper shouldn’t have been published b/c it didn’t go far enough in shining your shoes? This seems a bit overreactive to me.

    WRT reviewers, maybe one of them insisted you had to be cited which led to the off-hand comment being included. Addition of citations at reviewer request is very common.


  7. AProf Says:

    I suppose I haven’t presented the whole story. The off-hand citation is the tip of the iceberg. This paper completely misrepresented our work, so much so that what they said was mathematically incorrect. So yes, I do believe that a paper which contains a mathematically incorrect statement shouldn’t be published, at least in its current form; a reviewer should have pointed out the issue, and they should have fixed it.

    In this case, it is also very unlikely that a reviewer insisted that we be cited. Their work directly builds on ours; our work was published four years ago, and is fairly mainstream, so it is very unlikely that they came up with the approach completely independently and on their own.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    I was responding to your suggestion that the reviewers didn’t “cotton on” to the authors intentionally failing to cite your work, not suggesting that the authors were legitimately unaware of your paper.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    It strikes me that another reason that authors may be motivated to ignore or minimize another paper in the literature has to do with their own understanding of priority. Perhaps they think they got unfairly scooped in some way or simply beaten to the punch. If they are convinced that they were working on the idea/project long before some upstart snuck in a cheap paper*, they may be a bit pissed about that. Especially if they had meeting discussions with the other group at some point in time that gave them reference to when that other group actually started working on the project.

    *or worse, tacked on a figure to a paper mostly focused on something else.

    obviously the details are at issue here and we can’t really get into it that deeply. but this is what I was trying to distinguish in 8. and 9. Sometimes the offended party cries “shenanigans!” for relatively understandable moves on the part of the other authors. Sometimes it really is about a valid scientific difference of opinion. And it is very hard (mostly) to determine what was in the minds of the authors when they failed to cite your paper or did what you think is erroneous citation of it.

    As it happens I had a recent knock-down, multiple round of review fight with a reviewer over the way I was citing a paper or two. This person was incensed that I should draw similarities and see parallels in literature that was utterly and completely different to this person. Incensed!! Naturally I was right and this person was being an angels-on-head-of-pin idiot without even the credible excuse of excessive pedantry.


  10. AProf Says:

    “I was responding to your suggestion that the reviewers didn’t “cotton on” to the authors intentionally failing to cite your work, not suggesting that the authors were legitimately unaware of your paper.”

    I see. Actually what I implied was that the reviewers didn’t read the paper carefully enough to realize there was an error or a mis-representation. The paper also said that the technique (which we introduced 4 years ago) is novel, without outright saying that they introduce it, which also got my ire.

    To be fair, I re-read my old comment and it is really my fault — I didn’t give the full details, and it did come across as if I was being petulant that they didn’t “shine our shoes” well enough. Clearly I should get more practice commenting on blogs to make sure things come across properly. 🙂

    Anyways, I am a long-time reader of the blog but I have never commented. So wanted to say thanks for this blog post. If you have any advice about what to do when people don’t cite or mis-cite or mis-represent you, particularly when you are a junior person, that’d be great.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    If you have any advice about what to do when people don’t cite or mis-cite or mis-represent you, particularly when you are a junior person, that’d be great.

    ok……but first, I don’t know that being a junior investigator has much to do with it. this happens to everyone. anyway, my thoughts.

    1) Let it go. Seriously, this is going to be best for your mental health. My best advice is to just do your own thing, publish your papers, do your seminars and presentations and just keep moving forward. You can’t really force people to respect your work any other way than keeping it in front of them…lead to water, can’t make ’em drink kind of thing. Papers are battles, your career is the war. Fight another battle and win the war. Remember, they’ll probably die before you do…

    If you absolutely, positively can’t just let it drop….
    2) The best approach is to correct it, gently and politely, in the publication record. I.e., by slipping the appropriate corrective comments into your subsequent papers. Preferably by way of seeming to compliment the offender. “Slimey, Grouch et al confirmed our result…” straight up correction if you have to “Ding, Bat et al misinterpreted our finding…” Take the time to write a review paper if you are really amped. Plenty of space in such a thing to call out the bad guys.

    3) You can go on a full campaign if you want…every talk you give, poster, etc, make sure to grind your axe. send the offending authors your paper saying “not sure if you saw this*”. ….I really don’t see where this will come to anything but harm to you though.

    4) Minor effect but you can take your shots when offered reviewing opportunities. Insist you get cited, etc

    but really. think long and hard about this. If you have a trusted mentor and/or a few colleagues in the field, talk to them. get some feedback on whether you are being excessively touchy or are really being screwed. I am not suggesting at all that people don’t get screwed with, nor that it may not be a function of being young and/or female (or a minority or ….whatever). Sure, it happens. But there are also very normal reasons why your papers may not be garnering the attention and respect you feel that they deserve.

    this brings me to
    5) use your allies. If your trusted mentors and/or colleagues agree with you, try to enlist their aid. they may not have noticed what was happening but perhaps they can help out with the campaign.

    *I got one of those recently…cracked me up. I did miss the paper in question and I should indeed have cited it but…meh. The roots of the analysis stretched back to before that first author was even in undergraduate I bet and it was clear that this was so if you read the paper closely enough. I wasn’t too fussed about my oversight…


  12. AProf Says:

    Thanks so much! You are absolutely correct about 1), it is definitely better for my mental health 🙂 And the next time I write a review (I’m planning one next year or so), I’ll gently slip in a bit of 2).

    I can’t imagine how hard the tenure track must have been before we had blogs.


  13. Janne Says:

    I suspect another reason for (relative) lack of citations: You publish in closed, expensive, hard-to-get-your-hands-on journals.

    Once upon a time all journals were about equally (un)accessible. You searched library catalogues, then ordered it or dug into the bound stacks yourself to get your hands on the paper. If your library didn’t have it, you’d get it though an inter-library loan/order system. The availability didn’t much matter, as getting it took time and effort no matter what.

    Today, you can search for papers and get the PDFs instantly. Except when you can’t, because your library doesn’t carry that particular journal. Or you’re working from home or on the road and don’t have institutional access.

    All papers you found are reasonable citations (even the same group will often have multiple eligile papers). Some are open access. Others will have to wait until you get into your office. Some will take weeks before you get an expensive hardcopy in your inbox (and you wonder “why on earth did I order this?”). Time is ticking, you just want to get past this citation and get on with your work. Guess which papers are the most likely to end up in the bibliography?


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