Those of us who publish technical research papers like to see our work cited by our colleagues. Indeed, it’s integral to one’s success as a researcher (whatever ‘success’ means) that others cite your work, in whatever context. You might not like to see the publication of a stinging attack that demolishes your cherished hypothesis and shows how your approach and data analysis (and maybe overall philosophy, intellect and ability to write) are flawed, but the fact is that someone has at least read, and is citing, your work… and that’s still a sort of success. These days – sad to say – the ‘impact factor’ of your work (that is, the amount of times it gets cited and how quickly said research takes to win citations) is seen as an important measure of how ‘good’ your science is. Speaking as someone who works in a field where century-old monographs are still among the most-cited and most important works, where the accruing of tiny bits of data can sometimes (years later) enable someone to piece together evidence for a high-impact gee-whiz bit of science, and where ‘high-impact’ papers are all but useless and frequently contain hardly any information, I think we can question the notion that ‘impact factor culture’ helps our science… However, I’ll avoid that can of worms for the time being.
So, when you see a publication that’s very relevant to your own research, and find yourself not getting cited (or, perhaps, horrendously and obviously under-cited), what do you do? I have no idea, and – other than making sure that the offending party are aware of said research – I’m not sure what you can do, so I’m not about to provide an answer. Instead I’m going to ask a question: why do some authors or research groups fail to cite research that looks especially relevant? Having suffered from
five six a few, separate recent cases of this sort of thing I think I have some answers.
Authors do sometimes honestly fail to become aware of key papers. I was surprised when an author failed to cite a very relevant paper (by me) – one of only about three ever published on the subject in question. When asked about the oversight he apologised and said “would have cited your paper had I known about it”. My fault for publishing in an obscure journal with no online presence, perhaps. In another case the author was embarrassed as the paper he’d missed was essentially identical in layout, theme and conclusions to his own (and for complex reasons that I can’t discuss without giving too much away, there was no suspicion of plagiarism or malice or anything like that). Alas, none of us are omniscient, and even the most-informed, most cleverest and best-read person may still not be aware of every single paper and article relevant to their field of special interest. However, using such things as google and personal communication with other workers, one can generally get up to speed and ensure that nothing crucial has been missed. Furthermore, the excuse of oversight is becoming less believable/forgivable as pdf archives and online resources have become available, and as online communication and discussion have improved in general [adjacent: azhdarchid pterosaurs, by Mark Witton, not at all relevant to anything discussed here, and especially not to the ‘Acts of laziness’ section below].
Acts of laziness
Another conclusion I have reached is that some authors are just lazy. I was surprised to see that two recent papers on a given subject both failed to cite another, very relevant paper on that same given subject that was high-impact, open access, and had high visibility thanks to extensive coverage in the media and on blogs and discussion boards. I presume in these cases that the authors were lazy, and didn’t bother to read around on the subject. Not much we can do about that, though you’d expect that the reviewers or editors would have brought the attention of the authors to the missing citation in question. See below for more on ‘editor apathy’.
Choosing not to give credit
Sometimes, things are a little less innocuous and I feel confident that authors deliberately choose not to cite relevant works, specifically because they don’t want to give credit to them. Let’s make one thing clear: there’s no need to cite all 171 published papers on the mechanics of alethinophidian snake feeding (or whatever); you can get by with citing the three recent, comprehensive reviews of the subject. But if you’re publishing a conclusion that matches that of a previous study, it seems only right to cite that study, rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist. Of course, if you disagree with the conclusions (often because the article in question is, in your opinion, poor and best ignored): that’s different, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I am specifically referring to cases where authors agree with, or even endorse, statements made by other authors [adjacent image: a dead cat on a railway].
So, what to do about personal animosity and acts of malice? It’s well known that, within many fields of science, there are warring factions, and there are definitely some researchers and research groups that deliberately ignore the publications of other authors and research groups. There are also personal vendettas and so on. In such cases, one might argue that editors and reviewers should make an effort to get the offending party to at least credit the work of their ‘opponents': given that editors and reviewers should (in theory) be familiar with the field in question, they certainly can’t use the excuse that they’re unaware of these areas of animosity. In my work as an editor I’ve occasionally suggested to group x that they cite the work of group y, and they’ve usually done so once the request has been made. Maybe more of this sort of thing should occur, and when it doesn’t happen do we have editor apathy or ignorance? If ‘editor apathy’ IS a problem – what the hell are those people doing working as editors? Not sure what to do about this – suggestions?
It would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about the constant quest for citations. But we do. Like I said at the start, it does, unfortunately, make a difference as goes employability and ‘research impact’ assessment and so on. Failing to cite the appropriate work of your colleagues is also just not fair. Standard technical papers (i.e., not those destined for Nature, Science or PNAS) are not so constrained in length that a handful of extra references in the bibliography, or a few extra citations in the body of the text, make any difference, so – unless a good argument can be made that paper x was ignored because there’s something fundamentally wrong with it (this explains what Alan Feduccia recently termed ‘censorship by lack of citation’) – working scientists have an ethical obligation to accurately reflect the state of knowledge in their field [adjacent image: elephants].