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Referencing and Citation

Ethics of Self-Citation in Research Articles

 

Amy Clark, Senior Associate Editor

April 2022


For scholarly researchers, the pressure to build evidence of research productivity and prestige is intense, especially in the early stages of one’s career when citation rates are a factor in promotion and tenure decisions. The academic community relies on journal impact factors, citation indexes, and researcher-level metrics (e.g., the h-index) as measures of the importance of a researcher’s work, yet the system is not infallible. Researchers may be tempted to include multiple citations to their own work with the aim of increasing the citation numbers of their previously published articles, which in turn affects their h-index. Citation manipulation, which includes excessive self-citation, is a form of research misconduct and must be avoided. However, you may have sound scholarly reasons to cite your own work in a current paper, so how can you determine where to draw the line between acceptable and excessive self-citation?

What are some examples of unethical self-citation?

We have all come across articles where there is a disproportionate number of references to the author’s own work; this lack of balance is easy to spot. Excessive self-citation or “citation stuffing” is the practice of including citations in a current work solely for the purpose of manipulating the citation rate of those articles. Not only do authors have a responsibility to avoid this behavior, but journal editors and reviewers also play a role in avoiding the behavior themselves and in carefully evaluating the reference lists of submitted manuscripts.

The following circumstances represent abuses of self-citation:

• An author deliberately pads articles with citations to their previous work for the purpose of increasing the impact of that work. This may include omitting legitimate references to other researchers’ work, including those that present contradictory results or viewpoints.
• A reviewer makes a repeated practice of requesting that authors include references to the reviewer’s work, even when that work’s relevance to the topic is limited.
• An editor disproportionately recommends inclusion of citations from the editor’s own journal in an effort to increase the journal impact factor.
• A group of colleagues agree to routinely cite each other’s publications in their articles in an effort to boost the impact of each other’s work.

All the above examples are enough to give pause to fair-minded researchers. However, simply avoiding self-citation altogether is not the answer. After all, research is iterative, and studies are often built off previous studies.

When is self-citation appropriate and acceptable?

When making decisions about citations, keep in mind the scientist’s responsibility to pursue knowledge with clarity, fairness, and integrity. Consider the following legitimate reasons for including self-citations.

• Your previously published work is essential to understanding the accumulated research in the development of the topic of the current manuscript. To omit this citation would create an obvious crucial gap.
• The self-citation adds depth to the topic of the current paper. In other words, self-citations should not have a limited association with the topic.
• Your current study builds directly upon your previous study. In this case, you have a responsibility to cite the previous study to avoid self-plagiarism and so as not to misrepresent the content of the current article as novel.
• Based on your established work on the topic, a journal has invited you to contribute a review article. In this article, you should cite references to your own work objectively in the context of a balance of other important studies from different researchers.

In the end, navigating self-citation comes down to the question you must ask yourself: Do I have a legitimate scholarly reason to cite my previous study in the current manuscript? If you can supply a reason that is relevant to the topic of the paper and to your responsibility as a scientist, then there is no problem with including that self-citation.

References and further reading

Cell Press. Cell Mentor blog. Your questions about writing review articles, answered. Posted by Jerry Fagerberg, July 23, 2019. http://crosstalk.cell.com/blog/your-questions-about-writing-review-articles-answered. Accessed 3/23/22.

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Discussion document: Citation manipulation. July 2019. https://publicationethics.org/files/COPE_DD_A4_Citation_Manipulation_Jul19_SCREEN_AW2.pdf. Accessed 3/23/22.

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE Forum: 13 November 2017: Self-Citation: where’s the line? https://publicationethics.org/files/Self-citation.pdf. Accessed 3/24/22.

Council of Science Editors. White paper on publication ethics: 2.1.5. Citation Manipulation. Updated July 2020. https://www.councilscienceeditors.org/resource-library/editorial-policies/white-paper-on-publication-ethics/2-1-editor-roles-and-responsibilities/#215. Accessed 3/23/22.

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Recommendations for the conduct, reporting, editing, and publication of scholarly work in medical journals. Updated December 2021. http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/. Accessed 3/23/22.

U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Ethically questionable citation practices. https://ori.hhs.gov/ethically-questionable-citation-practices. Accessed 3/24/22.

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