What Really Drives Academic Citations?

By Neuroskeptic | October 12, 2014 1:11 pm

Citations are today the international currency of the scholarly economy. In theory, academic citations are the gold standard measure of the ‘impact‘ of a piece of work. If it gets other academics talking then it’s important.

But why do individual academics cite particular articles? A paper out now in the Social Studies of Science journal suggests a complex set of reasons: A taxonomy of motives to cite.

The Swedish authors, Martin G Erikson and Peter Erlandson, say that:

The four categories we suggest are Argumentation, Social Alignment, Mercantile Alignment, and Data. The first three can be found in the process of writing all kinds of scientific papers from all kinds of research traditions. The fourth, however, is limited to papers in which the main purpose is to analyze the writings of others, particularly in review papers or meta-analytic studies.


In this scheme, Argumentation covers the ‘traditional’ reason for citation: you cite a paper to support an argument (broadly construed). This includes citing ideas in order to criticize them. The ‘Data‘ category includes cases in which the cited paper constitutes the data for your analysis, as in a meta-analysis or bibliometric study.

The other two categories deal, perhaps, with the more controversial kinds of citations. Social Alignment, according to Erikson and Erlandson, is when

the motive for citing is found in the author’s identity or self-concept. Here, we have identified three subcategories: Scientific Tradition, Scientific Self-image and Effort Compensation. All three refer to ways the citing author presents himself or herself through the text, as well as providing the security of a well-defined field… By showing affiliations and belongings, the author creates a context for the reader, putting some potential readers off while appealing to others who will read the paper more favorably.

I liked the idea of the “Scientific Self-Image”, for example:

Through the use of citations, the author can make a self-presentation, for example, by appearing to be mainstream and safe or avant-garde. The way the author handles the seminal works of the field or how the arguments are built around theory or method can expose orthodoxy as well as iconoclasm or eclecticism in one’s approach…  In other words, citation is not only used to define the tradition with which the author wishes to be identified, but also to convey a desired image of who the author is in relation to this tradition.

Finally we have the somewhat oddly-named category of Mercantile Alignment, which according to the authors includes Credit, when citations are used to give previous authors credit for their ideas (whether or not these ideas are important for the argument), Bartering Material in which one author cites another in the hope that they will get cited back in exchange; Self-Promotion by self-citation; and Pledging in which citations are included for the purposes of making editors and peer-reviewers happy.

Overall this is a very nice paper, though it doesn’t address the issue of how scientists decide on which papers to cite. In many cases there are multiple possible papers that would equally well serve a given motive e.g. when writing I have often thought to myself, “I should cite a review about the influence of X on Y to back up this statement” – and there might be dozens of such reviews. What determines which one I end up citing?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in the ease with which a given paper can be found on a search engine. I might type ‘X and Y review’ into Google Scholar, and if I do, then I’ll probably cite the top hit. It would be interesting to study whether “search engine optimization” can get papers more citations. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

ResearchBlogging.orgErikson MG, & Erlandson P (2014). A taxonomy of motives to cite. Social Studies of Science, 44 (4), 625-37 PMID: 25272615

CATEGORIZED UNDER: FixingScience, media, science, select, Top Posts
  • http://bit.ly/ppaulojrprof Pedro Paulo Oliveira Jr

    What about the “let’s increase the H-index of my friends and not help the H-index of my enemies”?

    I once said to a student: “it’s wrong not citing someone because you don’t like him”.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That’s very true.

      Oh, and don’t forget the “self-plagiarism” motive: you cite a particular paper because you cited it last time and you’ve just copied and pasted the whole block of text.

  • feloniousgrammar

    In some minds, the number of citations a person gets is indisputable proof of the truthfulness and high quality of a scientist or “scientist’s” work. This is how Jared Diamond is considered a great public intellectual, voice of reason, and superb scientist.

    I think it’s a hinky measure.

    • David Landy

      Hinky! What a great and accurate word!

  • ohwilleke

    One broad brush issue is mostly stylistic. Do you provide citations for well established widely held paradigms in the field, or do you discuss them without citation to get to the meat of the current paper’s discussion.

    For example, in an economics paper, should you cite to Adam Smith for the phrase “the invisible hand” of the marketplace?

    Also, what if a paper rather than making a detail citation to the relevant literature simply says, “Spiro (2007) has an exhaustive summary of the literature on this question.” Should papers cited in Spiro get secondary credit in this kind of citation?

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  • Brett Champion

    “In many cases there are multiple possible papers that would equally well serve a given motive e.g. when writing I have often thought to myself, “I should cite a review about the influence of X on Y to back up this statement” – and there might be dozens of such reviews. What determines which one I end up citing?”

    You can tell by simply asking that question that the author is not a law professor, because law professors would cite them all. I’d be willing to wager good money that at almost every law review essay has at least one string citation of numerous sources being used to support a single argument, and most probably have four or five of them.

  • Brett Champion

    The author citing himself as a source has always seemed really cheap to me. I know it shouldn’t, but it’s always appeared to me as someone patting himself on the back.

    • Thomas Arildsen

      Why? If your paper builds on previous work of your own, shouldn’t you cite that to show where you are continuing from?

      • Brett Champion

        No, I certainly understand that. Like I said, I know such citations shouldn’t seem cheap to me, but they nevertheless do, especially when I know that there are citations that could be made to works other than the author’s to support the argument he’s making in the current paper (though this probably applies more to the social sciences and humanities than it does to the physical sciences). And if the author is simply building on previous work, there’s really no need to cite the old work throughout the new one. Just give a citation at the beginning explaining how this work builds off previous work and directing the reader where to find it.

        • Thomas Arildsen

          I am probably not familiar with the examples you are thinking of. Brief mention in an introduction is also more like what I was thinking of.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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