Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Citation Conspiracy

Someone recently told me about this, and I was wondering if anyone has participated in something similar:

A group of colleagues makes a specific effort to cite each other's papers -- those paper not involving the author/s doing the citing, so no self-citation is involved -- to help each other get their citation numbers up. They don't gratuitously cite a paper that is irrelevant to the topic at hand, but they proactively seek opportunities to cite each other's papers, and, given a range of options for citation of a particular point, they will choose to cite a paper by someone from this group.

If you have not participated in something like this, does it bother you that some people do this?

I have not participated in a citation-circle like this, and the fact that others do does not bother me. These people are not inappropriately citing their friends -- the citations are all relevant -- and it is likely that most of us do something like this anyway, even without making a concerted effort. We tend to cite papers with which we are familiar, no matter how diligent we try to be in surveying the vast literature in each of our sub/fields.

Does a citation-circle have any measurable positive effect on the career of a particpant? If it is effective, involving a sufficient number of productive (in terms of publications) researchers, it can make the difference in the citation numbers (h-index and so on). Increasingly, career advancement relies on having good citation numbers, so being in a citation-circle might be quite helpful, even if it doesn't result in a dramatic jump in citations.

Does a citation-circle harm those not in it? I suppose one instance in which a citation-circle, even one conducted in an ethical way, might have an unintended negative effect on someone not in the circle would be if one of the "proactively cited" papers becomes one of those papers that is commonly cited in introductions. And then, because it is cited prominently in some papers, it gets picked up as the go-to cite for introductions in papers on similar topics. The citation numbers can then snowball, and other papers might languish in undeserved obscurity.

I think that happens to some papers anyway, with or without a few citation-circles in action. Therefore, I was intrigued by the existence of such citation-circles, but not disturbed. But that's just me, perhaps reflecting my secure position as a mid-career professor who obsesses about citation data mostly out of curiosity rather than out of necessity. I am curious if others feel otherwise, but I need to note again that comment moderation will continue to be sporadic for a few more days (sorry).

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