Limiting citations is unscholarly journal practice

September 9, 2012

Potnia Theron observed that journals which impose limits on the number of citations that can be included in a manuscript are getting it wrong.

I agree, totally ridiculous. If the manuscript is egregiously overcited, the editorial and review process can handle it.

The drawback of such policy is palpable. It necessarily will prioritize particular papers (Glamour? First?) and obscure others. It hinders the process of citation thread-pulling which is an essential feature of scholarly reading. As such, it will slow the pace of science.

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No Responses Yet to “Limiting citations is unscholarly journal practice”

  1. anon Says:

    I submitted to a journal that had a 40-citation limit (which is probably an average cite number for a manuscript). We still had around ~70 citations in the paper, and the journal allowed it anyway. I agree that citation limit is unscholarly and stupid, but it’s not clear how strictly some journals will adhere to that rule. If they don’t, why bother having a such a rule in the first place?

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  2. Annika Says:

    Yup, you end up being super choosy. I wrote a paper that had a 40 citation limit, and I had about 47 citations, so I just hacked out 7 that didn’t make some kind of arbitrary cut either because they were published later, weren’t recent enough, or weren’t published by someone who was likely to be a reviewer. And seriously, with only 7 over, they couldn’t have just let them through?

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  3. Drugmonkey Says:

    In a world where citation metrics carry such weight, these limits drive further have/have not wedges into a body of investigation. The above comment about weeding out papers based on who might review the manuscript speaks volumes. We would all be pressured into these types of choices.

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  4. Pinko Punko Says:

    That is one nice thing about EMBO J- no citation limits and an encouragement to cite the original literature.

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  5. deevybee Says:

    I dislike such limits, but there is a logic to it for journals that have produce a print version. Space is always at a premium: the total number of pages in an issue is usually fixed and if you want more it costs more. So allowing authors more references will limit the number of articles in an issue. Maybe yet another kind of electronic-only supplementary material is needed for a more extensive bibliography. And clearly this doesn’t apply for electronic-only publications.
    My real quarrel is when the editor demands that no more than about 10% of citations are more than 5 years old. I’ve had something like that (not sure of exact figures) – I think it was with a Trends journal and their logic was that if you are talking about old stuff you aren’t talking about trends. But it can make it hard to put current trends in appropriate context, and give appropriate credit to those who started off a line of work.
    And of course the worst one of all is the journal that demands you cite papers from their own journal – in an attempt to manipulate impact factors.

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  6. Wow, Are there actually journals that explicitly say “cite from us?” or is it more subtle like suggesting papers to cite that all seem to be from the same journal/publisher?

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  7. miko Says:

    I was not expecting to click on a commenter link on this blog and be taken to an awesome take-down of Andrew WK revisionism. Thanks pinko.

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  8. The imposed limits are pretty reasonable, are not enforced with zero tolerance, and you can just cite some fucken reviews if you have to.

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  9. Drugmonky Says:

    How are noobs to know about the lack of zero tolerance in submission limits?

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  10. Zen Faulkes Says:

    Jonathan: Journals that explicitly or implicitly say “Cite us” will get themselves kicked out of of the Impact Factor calculation for citation manipulation. And for a lot of journals, that’s a big deal, because so many people (sadly) pay attention to impact Factor.

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  11. Crystal Voodoo Says:

    @Jonathan: I’ve have had journals explicit state “cite us” twice in different journals from different publishing houses. One had a reference to the journal in the initial draft that got cut in revisions and I was told that I’d have to put another one in to be accepted. The second time it was included in the first round Editor’s comments.

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  12. Odyssey Says:

    Whatever happened to the idea that we should be citing original sources? Limiting citations certainly discourages that.

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  13. Monisha Says:

    I find that all-inclusive page or word count limits can also have the same effect – again, if applied with zero tolerance; in my field, some journals (like where i am an AE) have some flexibility, and i can overrule page limits and accept longer pieces if the space is necessary. But i’ve had zero-tolerance experiences as well, where the quality of the submission was adversely affected, especially by limiting the broader research context within which the findings were presented through cutting references.

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  14. Grumble Says:

    So what happens if you just ignore the reference limit on the first submission? Do these reference-limiting journals send it back immediately?

    I find the issue that Monisha brings up to be just as egregious. In this day and age, why should it matter how many words or characters are in your article? An obvious way to reduce character count is to reduce reference number – and I agree with DM that that’s anti-scholarly.

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  15. bacillus Says:

    I work on BW agents which really necessitates citing the old literature since that was when all the stuff you aren’t allowed to do now happened (e.g. human volunteer experiments). When the field took off again post 9/11 it had been fallow for decades. I would cite papers from as far back as the 1920s in the first papers I published and citations from the 1950s, 1960s predominated. I know for a fact that these authors are either dead or hail from an era when they didn’t give a rats ass about IF. Therefore, once I had cited them in a couple of review articles, I stopped citing these original articles. Ironically, they probably got their best citation rate 40 years after the originals were published further underscoring the fact that you never know when your work might become influential.

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  16. Spiny Norman Says:

    Fuckin’ A., DM. This is one of my… I was gonna say a pet peeve but it’s a lot bigger than that. This shit is important and you’re dead-on right about it.

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