Self-citation by proxy

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Meet Dr Oozing-Confidence. He knows his work is important. Very important. Superior even. He gets very miffed when he reads anything that is on his topic, or connected with it, that doesn’t recognise his contributions and their significance. He is always keen to point these ignoramuses to the key texts in the field – his.

And now meet Dr Veryveryanxious. Dr Veryveryanxious is concerned that no one is citing him. He wants to make sure that his hard won publications get talked about. This is in part because he thinks his stuff is good and probably important – and he is mystified why it doesn’t get cited more. But he has also recently become concerned about the ways in which his peers keep quoting their citations and H Index at him. He is more than a bit worried that at some point his employer might notice that he is one of those people whose journal articles hardly seem to ever be featured in most downloaded or most read. Because of this, he is always looking for ways to point people to his work.

But don’t feel sorry for either of these two.  Both Dr Veryveryanxious and Dr Oozing-Confidence have found a neat way to ensure that other people know about their work. And it is a very cunning strategy. Because not only do other people get to hear about their work, but they also have to find it, and then read it, and then deal with it.

How? Well, it’s simple really.  They insert references to their work into a blind peer review.

I’m sure you know how this goes.

The author might benefit from reading… all my own work. This is a good paper but would be enhanced by addressing concerns raised by … all my own work. The paper seems inadequately grounded in the extant literatures; the writer particularly needs to read… all my own work. I found the omission of … all my own work… surprising. If the writer had read… all my own work… then they would have known that…

 Faced with this kind of all my own work recommendation, the writer-under-review has little option but to find the references, read them and work out whether they are indeed relevant to their argument. And even if they aren’t, they still have to tell The Editor in their letter of response why they haven’t included them in the final revised text.

But there will be a recorded hit on the journal website(s). RESULT.

Perhaps the writer-under-review will cite a paper as the line of least resistance to the peer review comments. The I may as well put it in as that’s what they seem to want response. RESULT.

And even if the writer doesn’t follow the reviewer’s advice – and why should they if it doesn’t actually make sense – they have now read the recommended papers and they might refer to them in the future. RESULT.

The thing is of course that writers can generally pick a review by Dr Veryveryanxious and Dr Oozing-Confidence. They know that they are being told to cite them and only them. They also understand that this is self-citation by proxy. When all that is offered by way of other recommended reading is a single author, and all my own work it not only raises suspicions but often hackles as well.

Now there is a real dilemma here for reviewers who actually do have work that is relevant to a paper they are reviewing and want to let the writer know, without seeming to be either one of the above self-obsessed academic types. How to do this without seeming to be entirely egotistical, bragging or self-promoting?  If it ‘s not wrong or inappropriate for a reviewer to tell people about their own relevant work, and if it’s really only a problem for the writer when it’s an all my own work response, then what do you do?

The answer is relatively straightforward. Don’t just offer yourself. Offer a selection of further readings, including a pointer to the piece of your work that is pertinent.

Reviewers who offer a menu of possibilities – not just all my own work but that of other scholars too – are actually giving the writer an entrée into the parts of the academic conversation that they might not have yet come across. They offer a number of possibilities that would enhance the paper, add to the argument, modify it, provide more helpful evidence. They offer the conversation, the context, the debate, not just a single position within it. As long as the particular reviewer’s work is situated in the relevant conversation, then it is doing a scholarly service. And it will also meet the unwritten rules of good scholarly etiquette.

You see, peer reviewing is not a monologue. It’s always a dialogue with the paper writer, and with others the field as well. One of the things that good reviewers look for is how the paper is situated in the field – not how it relates to my work alone. Peer reviewing is a place where we have to be mindful of our context, and our behaviour, and our peers, and the work of all of us together. Self-citation by stealth isn’t OK.

But Dr Veryveryanxious is just too nervous to stop and think about his scholarly purposes or his manners. Dr Oozing Confidence, still seeking the scholarly equivalent of world domination by sundown, doesn’t even notice they exist.

Don’t be like them. Good scholarly conduct. Good scholarly etiquette. Not all my own work. It’s the conversation that really counts.

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