Repost: Why aren’t they citing my papers?

July 7, 2016

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….

16 Responses to “Repost: Why aren’t they citing my papers?”

  1. Grumble Says:

    11. Some journals limit the number of references you can include in a paper. Or they have strict word or character limits that include the references, and the easiest thing to do to get your paper under the limit is cut out a few references.

    12. You were the asshole reviewer of someone’s paper, and now they refuse to ever cite you. There is a particular eminence grise in my field who was so unspeakably nasty that I vowed that I will never, not once, cite his papers. It has been 15 years since that review and I have kept my vow. (And yes, I do know who the reviewer was. ‘Bout time for him to retire, I think.)


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Grumbke- doesn’t that just trigger tit-for-tat spirals with the lab’s academic offspring? Seems like something to get over to me.


  3. Adam Says:

    If you’re reviewing a paper, and your own research is potentially relevant, I see nothing wrong in pointing out to the authors that they might consider whether your stuff is worth mentioning. I’m not saying, “cite me or else I’ll reject your paper”, but if your stuff is genuinely relevant, the response I get most from authors is “We weren’t aware of that research and it’s totally relevant, so thanks for pointing it out.” Far less often they reply, “we considered it and decided against it,” which is fine, too.


  4. El Picador Says:

    Sure they “weren’t aware of it”. Sure.


  5. Grumble Says:

    Nah. Since I can’t go all Sansa’s-revenge-on-Ramsay, I’ll settle for not citing his drivel.


  6. Dusanbe Says:

    How about not wanting to cite the work of a lecherous serial harrasser?


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    I’ve seen that recommended. Are we concerned about co-authors that might be the dude’s victims? Or nah?


  8. shrew Says:

    Dusanbe’s impulse is understandable and tempting, but sometimes one is forced for political reasons to include on the author list a lecherous serial harasser. To fail to cite a manuscript hurts the first and last authors more than anyone else. And since the first author doesn’t have a final say over the author list and has the most to lose by having the work ignored than the last author does, this ends up doing more harm than good to a trainee who is (hopefully, god) not a lecherous serial harasser themselves.


  9. Dusanbe Says:

    You raise a good point about trainees and co-authors. The right way to go about that is not cite the lecher’s bloviating solo works (reviews, opinion pieces), or, in the case of older lechers, their first-author papers co-authored with their long retired former advisors.


  10. jmz4 Says:

    I doubt that not citing work by lechers is a permissible tactic for several reasons. Most of them are established, enshrined and ensconced in their departments/fields, or they wouldn’t be able to pull off that kind of behavior. So not citing them is not likely to affect their standing or the influence of their lab. Secondly, blackballing a whole lab and collaborators because the last author is (often allegedly) a lech doesn’t strike me as fair. These people already have to deal with someone with serious personality flaws, and you’re making it worse.
    Thirdly, and most importantly, you’re hurting the reader of your paper by omitting information based on a largely extraneous (and potentially unproven) matter relative to the information they are seeking (i.e. what science backs up your claims). This comes dangerously close to thought policing and ad hominem argumentation. One should not discount the work of a scientist simply because he is an odious person. Otherwise we’d have to ignore a fair amount of accurate work.

    “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.”
    -I wonder if it would possible to statistically infer such antagonistic relationships by analyzing the citation web for mutually excluding patterns of citation…


  11. another young FSP Says:

    If the work of a lecherous serial harasser is truly foundational to my own, I feel it is important to cite that work appropriately.

    On the other hand, I will also discourage any suggestions of the LSH as an invited speaker and will not attend their seminars; I would not consider them a candidate for an award, I will not attend their seminars, etc, etc etc. There, I am speaking out against the individual, not the science.

    (and if there are two equivalent references I could fairly use, one by LSH and one by someone else, I’ll go with “someone else” every time).

    Cutting hairs? Yes, but it’s the best I can try to do to balance it out.


  12. SidVic Says:

    I think it helps if you state all findings in clear concise format in the abstract. I’m pretty sure that many yahoos are just reading the anstract in pubmed for citations. Craefully selected keywords may help too… These I select based upon my wildest speculations in the discussion. For instanse, if the studied phenom x, might play causal role in alzheimer’s as claimed in discussion; then i might use “alzheimers’s” in keywords. Words that appear in abstract are already pulled up in pubmed.


  13. Ola Says:

    You forgot one….
    Is the abstract any fucking use at all? If I’m writing, especially in the revision phase, and I need to make a point to smack down a reviewer, and I can’t be bothered to pull the PDF (or couldn’t get it even if I wanted to – fuck you Springer), then I’m gonna cite the paper that contains the info I want in the abstract. Write good abstracts and your paper will be cited more!


  14. AcademicLurker Says:

    Don’t forget the folks who don’t even bother to read abstracts. Once or twice a paper of mine has been cited as saying the exact opposite of what it clearly says right in the abstract and then again multiple times in the body of the paper. Presumably, the people in question just did a key word search and pasted in the first few references that came up.


  15. SidVic Says:

    ” I can’t be bothered to pull the PDF’ Haha Ola; you illustrate the generation gap. I used to have to walk to building- they called a libralarry, i think? In any case, it contained square devices filled with thin sheets of wood. Often dust was present.

    Once i cleaned out a old profs lab; he had boxes containg 1000s of index cards where he had laboriously copied abstracts suing a hollow tupe filled with charcoal. His endnote database.


  16. imager Says:

    We once published a paper on a new method. Sure enough, a few months later (after our paper was online) another paper comes out describing the same method without acknowledging our paper (which was in a higher IF journal) – probably as the novelty would have been gone. I wrote a polite letter to the editor of the other journal (a respected one as well) to point out that shortcoming, not demanding anything. This letter was never answered…


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