Citing yourself – how much is too much?


Should you cite yourself? Ever? Never? Sometimes, and if sometimes, when? And how much? When does sometimes become just too much altogether?

There are mixed views on self-citation.

Some people think that it’s quite unseemly to cite yourself at all – it’s nothing but ruthless self-promotion and bragging. And of course, there are people who do appear to cite nobody much but themselves.

People who cite themselves when there is a lot of work on the same topic – even when there are seminal papers that you’d really expect to see named –  either don’t know the seminal papers or perhaps just think that theirs is better. A prolific self citer can easily be read as “No one has done anything worth a damn in this space, just me, me, me”. For this reason, academic-writing-help-sites commonly advise you to cite yourself sparingly so you don’t give the impression that you think yours is the only work on the topic that matters.

I’m sure we can all think of people who do have the self -cite habit. Concerns about bragging and self-promotion are not without foundation. A serial self-citer really does operate as if academic publication is one long selfie.

But… there are times when it is perfectly sensible to cite yourself. And it’s better to  understand the reasons why you might do this than struggle with vague and unspecified notions of ‘lightly self-cite’.

There’s an often- unwritten general scholarly rule that you need to cite your previous work when you want to show how a current paper/project builds on what you’ve done before.

Given that most of us do have research agendas where we try to build up a body of understanding about something, it’s only logical that we show the steps we took. The practice of self-citation is one which makes connections with prior publications clear to readers. It’s an important way of making obvious what this work adds to what we’ve done before. This is building a contribution.

For instance, it is very sensible for someone doing a PhD by publication to want to cite their previous work. The whole point of the PhD by publication is to build a linked set of papers around a research question. After the papers, the doctoral researcher is required to write a separate document – an exegesis or kappa – where they argue how the papers together constitute an answer to their overarching question. However, it’s desirable that  some connections are created within the papers themselves, as they are being written and published. The connections are not just left till the end. And often, one paper in the PhD by publication is ‘foundational’ in that it makes a case or establishes a set of understandings on which other papers are built. Even if the PhD papers are published in different journals, they can still be connected and made coherent through self-citation.

And the same process applies to more experienced researchers who are building a body of work. For example, I have over a long period of time  – yes, now I’m self citing –  been playing around with a particular social theory (Bourdieu) to see what his thinking tools can do as methodology. I’ve written some refereed papers and a book on the topic. Each of the publications stands alone, but together they are an ongoing project which explores the limits and potentials of a Bourdieusian methodological take on large and small scale social issues. It makes sense for me to refer, in any new Bourdieu papers, to this longer-term agenda –  and to build on what I have established previously.

It’s always worth looking at the work of very experienced scholars to see how they do this.

I’ve just been reviewing a book written by someone who is very eminent in my field. He – well, it is a he – is widely regarded as a leading international scholar. He’s done empirical work which is ground breaking, he’s been the first to detail particularly important global educational phenomena. He’s also done innovative theoretical work in the field and some which is methodological. Countless doctoral researchers use his work, and really, anyone who writes in my field of education from a social science perspective has to cite him. Got the picture?

The book I’ve been looking at is a big picture view of education. Now, this researcher has truck-loads of his own publications to cite, and he does refer to some which pretty well everyone in the field would also cite. But he doesn’t use the book as the place to mention each and every paper and book he’s ever written. And he cites lots of other people’s work  in order to create the substantive evidence base he needs for the argument he is making, as well as to situate his work in the wider field. His book is a helpful example of how much self-citation is enough – there is sufficient to show contribution and agenda, to build on prior work. But there is not so much that it raises reader hackles, or suspicions about ego, manipulation of H indices and other self-serving strategies.

Reading books written by significant scholars in your field, to check for their practices of self citation, can help you to test out where you think the line on self-citation is drawn.

There’s a further question about self-citation too, which is how you actually accomplish it in the text, and I’ll talk some about that in the very next post.