Thursday, July 28, 2022

You’re so Vain, You Probably Think This Article Should Have Cited You

Have you ever been upset because an article didn’t cite you? I have.

When I was a doctoral student and new Assistant Professor, whenever I came across a new article in my research area (mostly racial/ethnic identity, in those days), I would immediately look at the reference list to see if they cited my work. I remember even doing this shortly after I published my first paper, when it was impossible that the paper could be cited any time remotely soon, given the glacial pace of publishing in psychology (this was well before preprints were used in the field). The vast majority of times when I checked if I was cited in an article, I was quite disappointed to find that I was not.

This was frustrating for me. Why weren’t other researchers citing my papers? Why was my work being overlooked, when it was clearly relevant? Was there some bias against me, and/or in favor of others?

Over time, I realized that my reactions were all wrong. Yes, my research was relevant and could have been cited, but I was far from the only person studying racial/ethnic identity. Authors certainly are not going to cite all published papers related to the topic. Even if that was possible—which it is not—that would lead to absurd articles and reference lists. So, authors obviously must be selective in who they cite. Why should they cite me instead of someone else who does related work? If we all believe we should be cited when relevant, that would mean that we believe authors should cite all relevant work. It is clearly a nonsensical position, but one that we are socialized into adopting within the bizarrely insecure world of academic publishing. Citations are currency in the academic world, and money can make us act in strange ways.

There is a phenomenon that I have observed (too often) on social media and at conferences that I refer to as “citation outrage,” or the act of publicly complaining about not being cited in a particular paper. This seems to stem from an inflated sense of our own relevance to other’s published work. Of course, your work could be cited in a whole host of papers, but did it need to be cited? Would the authors arguments, interpretations, or conclusions be any different if they had cited your paper? Chances are, the answer is no, and in such cases, you should probably just relax.

Now that said, it is not the case that all complaints about lack of citation are the same. Far from it.

Sometimes certain work should indisputably be cited. This can take a couple of different forms. It is nearly always advisable to cite the originator of a term or idea, especially if it is relatively recent, i.e., does not have a clear historical precedent and is not part of common knowledge. Additionally, if one’s work is not just related to the topic area, but directly related to the specific study, then yeah, it should almost certainly be included. To return to my early research, if a paper is focused on narratives of race/ethnicity-related experiences, and how those narratives are related to racial/ethnic identity processes, it would be a strange omission to not include articles I published on that exact topic. That is quite different, though, from expecting my work to be cited in any article related to racial/ethnic identity, which is a broad remit. Indeed, some have heard me complain about a time that our work was not cited when it should have been. I gave a talk on a topic that was relatively novel at the time, and had a subsequent discussion about it with a senior researcher who was in the room. They informed me that they were working on a paper that covered similar ground, so I sent them our published work on the topic. About a year later, I saw the paper published in a high-profile outlet with nary a citation to our previous work that was directly related and that which I know they were aware. That was both frustrating and academically dishonest: the authors knowingly omitted references to our papers to make their work appear to be novel. 

There are additional structural factors around citations that must be considered. There has been quite a bit of attention recently to citation patterns and representation, particularly in regard to gender and race/ethnicity. Several lines of evidence indicate gender and racial citation disparities across a number of fields (e.g., Chakravartty et al., 2018; Chatterjee & Werner, 2021, Dworkin et al., 2020; Kozlowski et al., 2022), with generally more studies focused on gender than race. As with nearly all social science research, however, this literature is difficult to synthesize due to inconsistent analysis practices and lack of attention to confounds, such as working in different fields, seniority, institutional prestige, and disciplinary differences in authorship order (for a discussion of some of the issues, see Anderson et al., 2019; Dion & Mitchell, 2019; Kozlowski et al., 2022). I have not gone deep enough into all of the studies to arrive at a conclusion about the strength of evidence for these disparities, but I certainly have a strong prior that they are real given the racialized and gendered nature of science, opportunity structures, and whose work is seen as valued[1]. Additionally, we know that researchers can be lazy with their citations, relying on titles or other easily-accessible information rather than reading the papers (Bastian, 2019; Stang et al., 2018). This kind of “familiarity bias” will almost certainly reinforce inequities.

The recognition of these biases and disparities has led to pushes for corrective action, sometimes under the label of “citational justice” (Kwon, 2022) but more generally in terms of being more aware, transparent, and communicative about citation practices (Ahmed, 2017; Zurn et al., 2020). Various tools have been introduced, such as the Gender Balance Assessment Tool (Sumner, 2018) and the Citation Audit Template (Azpeitia et al., 2022), which provide data on the gender or racial background of the authors in a reference list, raising the awareness of authors’ citation patterns and giving them an opportunity to make changes.

To be blunt, I am not a big fan of these tools, what they imply, or the technology that underlies them. I agree that they can be very useful for raising awareness of our citation patterns, as I imagine few have a clear sense for their citation behavior. I am less positive about the possible actions that will come from such tools. They reinforce thinking about diversity in terms of superficial quotas; so long as you cite a reasonably equal number of men and women, or some (unknown) distribution of racial groups, then you have done your deed towards reducing disparities. They also rely on automated methods of name analysis or intensive visual-search strategies that are both highly prone to error. For example, in a widely-discussed—and ultimately retracted—article of over 3 million mentor-mentee pairs, the gender of 48% of authors could not be classified (AlShebli et al., 2020). The challenges of automated classification become ever more difficult when moving beyond the gender binary or attempting to classify based on race or nationality. To be fair, the authors of such tools and those who advocate for them acknowledge the limitations and don’t claim that using them will solve all the problems, but that it is a position that is difficult for people “out there” to resist. These quota-based approaches are the typical kind of quick-fix, minimal effort solutions to addressing disparities that researchers just love. They could be thought of as a form of “citation hacking,” or misuse of citations in service of some goal other than the scientific scope of the paper. They focus on representation—which is not a bad thing—but they don’t at all require that we engage with the substance of the work.

Indeed, whereas of course citations are important and necessary within the academic economy, the larger issue is one of epistemic exclusion (Settles et al. ,2021), the phenomenon of faculty of color’s scholarship being devalued by their White colleagues. The solution to this problem is not citation audits or citation quotas. The solution to this problem is to be more reflective about the work that you engage with, and how it influences your own work. And yes, this includes providing proper credit in the form of citation. The Cite Black Women movement, founded in 2017 by the Black feminist anthropologist Christen A. Smith, is an excellent model for focusing on our practice of reading, appreciating, and acknowledging contributions, rather than on the number or percentages of Black women cited in papers.

So how do we think about all of this together? To be honest, I had only planned to write about citation outrage, but then realized the discussion would be incomplete or confused without including citation justice. At first glance, it may seem like these are the same thing; that is, citation justice is just a more formal type of citation outrage. But this is wrong. Citation justice is seeking to bring attention to the systemic inequities around how we engage with, appreciate, and acknowledge work from marginalized populations within a society stratified by race and gender. Citation outrage is about the irrational sense of entitlement, importance, and relevance that is all too common among academics. I acknowledge that this distinction will be lost on some readers, but in short, one flows from a system of oppression, and the other simply doesn’t. 

So then, should that article have cited you? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. Should you have cited other articles? You always could have, you probably should, and it definitely would be worthwhile to reflect on who you include and why. Again, citations are currency. What should matter more is the substance of the work, but citations impact who gets hired, promoted, awarded, funded, and so on, so it is worth being thoughtful about.

And now, for those of you just here for the Carly Simon: 


Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Duke University Press.

AlShebli, B., Makovi, K., & Rahwan, T. (2020). RETRACTED ARTICLE: The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-8.

Andersen, J. P., Schneider, J. W., Jagsi, R., & Nielsen, M. W. (2019). Meta-Research: Gender variations in citation distributions in medicine are very small and due to self-citation and journal prestige. eLife8, e45374.

Azpeitia, J., Lombard, E., Pope, T., & Cheryan, S. (2022). Diversifying your references. SPSP 2022 Virtual Workshop; Disrupting Racism and Eurocentrism in Research Methods and Practices.

Bastian, H., (2019). Google Scholar Risks and Alternatives [Absolutely Maybe].

Chakravartty, P., Kuo, R., Grubbs, V., & McIlwain, C. (2018). # CommunicationSoWhite. Journal of Communication68(2), 254-266.

Chatterjee, P., & Werner, R. M. (2021). Gender disparity in citations in high-impact journal articles. JAMA Network Open4(7), e2114509-e2114509.

Dion, M. L., & Mitchell, S. M. (2020). How many citations to women is “enough”? Estimates of gender representation in political science. PS: Political Science & Politics, 53(1), 107-113.

Dworkin, J. D., Linn, K. A., Teich, E. G., Zurn, P., Shinohara, R. T., & Bassett, D. S. (2020). The extent and drivers of gender imbalance in neuroscience reference lists. Nature Neuroscience23(8), 918-926.

King, M. M., Bergstrom, C. T., Correll, S. J., Jacquet, J., & West, J. D. (2017). Men set their own cites high: Gender and self-citation across fields and over time. Socius, 3, 1-22.

Kozlowski, D., Larivière, V., Sugimoto, C. R., & Monroe-White, T. (2022). Intersectional inequalities in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences119(2), e2113067119.

Kwon, D. (2022). The rise of citational justice: how scholars are making references fairer. Nature 603, 568-571.

Settles, I. H., Jones, M. K., Buchanan, N. T., & Dotson, K. (2021). Epistemic exclusion: Scholar(ly) devaluation that marginalizes faculty of color. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 14(4), 493–507.

Stang, A., Jonas, S., & Poole, C. (2018). Case study in major quotation errors: a critical commentary on the Newcastle–Ottawa scale. European Journal of Epidemiology, 33(11), 1025-1031.

Sumner, J. L. (2018). The Gender Balance Assessment Tool (GBAT): a web-based tool for estimating gender balance in syllabi and bibliographies. PS: Political Science & Politics, 51(2), 396-400.

Zurn, P., Bassett, D. S., & Rust, N. C. (2020). The citation diversity statement: a practice of transparency, a way of life. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(9), 669-672.

[1] I have a paper in which I discuss this, but given the evidence for higher self-citation among men (King et al., 2017), I will sit this one out.