A couple years back, I was co-teaching a graduate course on gender history at the University of Edinburgh. I was advising an MA student on historiographical literature, and I asked her if she used Google Scholar to locate scholarly references. She didn’t, so I demonstrated how to use the search tool. As an example, I typed my name into the search bar, and my two recently published articles popped up. I showed her the different parts of the Google Scholar citations – how to cite the article in different styles and how to find it in a library. I quickly exclaimed, “Oh, look! See where it says, ‘Cited by’? That means another article has cited mine. If you were reading this article for your historiography, similar pieces might be of use to your research.” But my discussion of references and cross-citation metrics in Google had blurred. I hurriedly clicked on the link – who had cited my newly published work? Well, it turns out, I had – in my other article.
Excessive self-citation (often characterized as “citation farms”) is looked down upon in some academic circles. Is this person cannibalizing their own work? Why can’t they come up with new ideas? I’m sure other people have also written about topic X, Y, or Z! I faced some of these fears in the past year after publishing my first book. I had written two journal articles based on material I had taken out of the manuscript, but I referenced the book’s argument in both. I feared all the things I mentioned above. But after a call with my editor and several discussions with colleagues, I realized I was doubting myself. I also discovered that self-citations “pay”: they not only add to your citation numbers but also attract more citations. Experts show that for every single self-citation, an author accumulates three outside citations over five years.
As with all things in academia, the issue of self-citation is gendered. A recent study found that women cite themselves 56 percent less than men do. When restricting self-citations to only the past twenty years, that number rises to 70 percent. There is a wide range related to the field and subfield of study, but scholars have not found a relationship between the proportion of women in a certain field and the relative rate of self-citation for men and women in that same field. And it is unclear if the gendered gap in self-citation is a “cause or a consequence” of “the very real gender imbalances within academia.” Do women cite themselves less because of learned behaviors and a reticence toward self-promotion? Do women cite themselves less because they publish less (and often later) due to gendered burdens of labor at home (the “productivity gap”)?
Women also ask fewer questions at academic conferences, not because they are less knowledgeable or capable, but because of the sexism they’ve experienced in the past in addition to the sexism present in the room.
Other scholars have pushed back on the idea that gender is the most explanatory feature of self-citation differences, with a skeptical view toward individual decisions to self-cite based on gendered socialization. Rather, these authors argue that “opportunity, accessibility, and visibility” are more salient than “gender and culture (ethnicity, language, affiliation)” (as if the former are somehow separate from the latter). But the same study also found that “self-citation is the hallmark of highly productive authors, of any gender, who cite their novel journal publications early in similar venues.” This means that scholars who experience shorter or disrupted careers by, let’s say, having a baby, are disadvantaged. The study’s author concedes that this context “disproportionately” affects women who “have different career trajectories for a variety of reasons.” So, either way, there’s a problem with self-citation and gender in the Academy.
This is not just a gender issue, though. When analyzing grant applications to the NIH, researchers found that Black applicants reported fewer citations than their white counterparts, which has resulted, as J. Nalubega Ross has shown, in a gap in funding for Black-led scientific research. What would a study that looks at gender and race find?
As we increasingly move toward a metrics-based evaluation model across academic disciplines, citations (including self-citations) matter. But, as with everything, everywhere, we must be cautious about this seemingly “objective” metric. Researchers in Italy found that economics citations did not necessarily reflect scientific quality but rather similar methodologies and themes and, most importantly, “various measures of social community as well as of political proximity.” The paper’s author found that “at least in the case of economics, citations cannot be interpreted as mere proxies of scientific impact, and their use to produce indexes and rankings may require careful rethinking.” In other words, these economists were living in an echo chamber where the walls were padded by their own citations.
The COVID-19 crisis, which shuttered schools, daycares, and summer camps, has exacerbated the “productivity” problem. Women academics already engage in more domestic labor than male academics, and preliminary data demonstrates that women’s productivity has fallen compared to men’s since the pandemic hit the United States. The continued police killings of unarmed Black men and women and the subsequent protests for Black Lives Matter add another stressor (and existential threat) to BIPOC scholars. And when hiring and tenure models continue to exclude certain scholarship – public history, blogs – from their evaluation metrics, the crucial work that many women and BIPOC scholars are doing right now won’t “count.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, a long way to go, and much to do to change these realities. But I say, let’s start by citing ourselves. It’s not acting shady. We are experts, after all.