on the perils of self-citation

The other day I got a book in the mail. Not that unusual. This was one that I’d written a chapter in and it was my complimentary copy. Before I stuck it on the shelf I thought I’d take a bit of a look at the contents. What had other people written? I flicked through and, as happens when you’re just scanning bits and pieces, one end-of-chapter set of references leapt out at me.

I’m not going to name the book, its editors or indeed its publisher – although I really would like to name and shame the author of the particular end-of-chapter references that struck me. Why? Well, every single text cited was by the chapter author. All of them. Not one other person was cited. Not one. Just the author.

What can we conclude from this? That the author is the only person that has addressed this particular issue? Not the case. So it must be that either:
(1) the author doesn’t know what anyone else has written on the topic or
(2) they don’t rate what anyone else has done or
(3) they are trying to up their own citations.

Any of these three options look like pretty miserable scholarly practice.

I, me, myself… no-one else has anything worth saying about this topic but me. The scholarly circle of me. Standing on the shoulders of giants? I am the giant, O tiny ones. The rest of you are so insignificant I cannot even see you, let alone read you… Cogito ego sum.

Now, I’m not saying that an academic writer shouldn’t cite their own stuff. We all do, and it’s usually sensible to do so. In the case in point, all of the contributors had been asked to write for the book on the basis of having an international track record in the field. So all of us, bar this one person – I then checked all the other ends of chapters – had cited something of our own. But we hadn’t made out we were solo players, disconnected from everyone else, soliloquising on the scholarly stage. No, the rest of us had put our work in conversation with the field.

Many, but identical. Dollies alive and well at U Nottingham.

Many, but identical. Dolly the Sheeps alive – and thankfully well – in Nottinghamshire.

You do often need to show that what you’re writing about now is part of your ongoing agenda – self-citation demonstrates that you’ve built up, over several texts and projects, a set of understandings, arguments and results. No matter who you are, you don’t have to pretend that you’re a complete novice in an area, unless you actually are. Some self-citation is generally expected.

But there’s a line between this and simply blowing your own trumpet rather immodestly. And it’s not that fine a line between modesty and excess.

It’s not uncommon to see people get the balance a bit wrong. For instance, a relatively new researcher might offer themselves as a solo citation in relation to rather well-trodden territory, rather than co-locating themselves with key texts and contributions. That’s not fatal and a referee will usually pick this up.

There always is a ‘just right’ balance between inappropriate self-centred-ness and situating yourself and your work in the field. The trouble is that the line-not-to-cross is often not explicit. And it varies between disciplines – so you do need to suss it out. And see this recent THE article, on someone alleged to have overstepped the self-citation bounds, suggesting that more people are now looking to see what the balance actually is. Then check out Ken Hyland’s paper on the difficulties of judging perfectly reasonable self-citing practices by conventional metric means. You might also want to keep track of the debates about whether self-citations should ‘count’.

In the case of the particular chapter that offended me, it wasn’t too hard to see that the writer just got it really wrong. So wrong. Off over on the far-side of the me-us continuum. Almost beyond comprehension.

I notice that the urban dictionary describes this kind of me, me, me behaviour as pathological – an ego-maniac, it suggests, is someone whose ego exceeds both their intelligence and their capacity to see beyond their own personal interests. The dictionary kindly suggests some related terms – jackass, loser and douchebag. It’s worth remembering those when considering how much to self-cite.

I’ll certainly have the words jackass, loser and douchebag in my mind when I next bump into the self-referencer at a conference. And I’m sure I won’t be the only writer in the book who noticed the bibliographic display of vanity and conceit.

Road sign: Ahead. Academic narcissus about to topple into deep pool of peer scorn.

Note: The idea for writing on this topic came from a twitter conversation with @msfloraposte. Coincidentally, the book with the offending chapter arrived the next day.

And a further coincidence – the day after this post comes a report about research suggesting men self-cite more than women.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, conversation, self-citation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to on the perils of self-citation

  1. Kip Jones says:

    I think your disagreement is a bit one-sided. There are times, because of space limitations, that it is necessary to refer to one’s previously published work in order to flesh out the background of an argument or subject. If these were just repeated in full instead, then some would be belittling the author for self-plagiarism. Anyway, the good news is that the stifling, rule-centrist academic publishing system is imploding and won’t be around for much longer. Woe be to all the jackasses, ‘douche bags’, losers and any other perfectly acceptable academic descriptive terms for those who think that academic publishing is the only game in town.

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    • pat thomson says:

      I think thats actually what I say – paragraph next to the sheep pic. We all self cite show how this builds on other work etc. Im not saying never self cite – far from it. Im just talking about balance. Plus I couldnt resist the opportunity to make so many bad jokes.

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  2. anacanhoto says:

    I think the book editors were at fault here, too. They have an obligation, towards the reader, to check the contents of each chapter and ensure that it offers a suitable, scholarly contribution… and that includes positioning the chapter in relation to what others have said (via citation to the work of others). It is, sometimes, difficult to manage certain ‘star’ authors (or inexperienced ones, for that matter)… but it is the editors’ job to do it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jo VanEvery says:

    This is a particular case of the larger problem of thinking of citations and publication primarily in terms of validation processes (do these citations count) rather than in terms of communication. Scholarly publishing is meant to be a conversation through which we advance knowledge collectively. We build on what comes before. We engage with other scholars in the field. Citation reflects that. And of course we need to cite our own work, for the reasons you state, but the reasons that this particular author’s reference list stood out was the lack of engagement in a conversation with anyone else, even anyone else in the same collected volume.

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