Why Self-Citation is Dangerous Business in Academia

The notable science magazine, Nature, has recently pointed out why an obscure researcher might have citation counts at par with a Nobel laureate. It is but natural that an eminent researcher will be quoted to justify a claim in a paper. So, how can humble achievers compete with the best in the business? At this point, self-citation comes to the limelight. The particular researcher mentioned by the magazine found out that 94% of his citations were self-citations. In other words, the researcher was tooting his own horn. While the strategy might be a good business idea, it is not viable as a method to increase one’s credibility as a researcher.

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The Implications

The inferences drawn from this investigation is far from simple.  Instead, it entices us to a maze that seems quite labyrinthine. Further investigations have confirmed that there are groups of researchers who are in cahoots in the whole issue. This essentially means that they regularly cite each other in their papers. While this might seem innocuous, it makes data analysis unreliable. For instance, someone is sifting through tons to data to find out the top researchers in molecular biology. What happens if the guy with the best networking skills wins instead of the real contributors?

While citation is mostly interchangeable with reference, the two are not the same thing. Proper referencing in a paper overtly justifies the logic behind the relevance of bringing into context a particular research. In case of self-citations, the researchers are mentioned as a passing reference, but it does the job for them. It is not surprising that the obliged person does not fail to oblige with the same kindness the next time he publishes a paper. This subservience misleads any sort of analysis that may be made on the literature on a particular topic. If unchecked, it might mottle the entire body of research in a particular area so much that conclusiveness would lose relevance.

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Gender Trouble

Interesting facts have also been unearthed during this investigation. Facts reveal that men are 56% more responsible for self-citations than women are. The study was conducted based on articles submitted to the online repository JSTOR. Men’s self-citation rate has increased by 70% over the last two decades. The data further suggests that if the findings are averaged out, nearly 10% citations in any research paper is potentially self-citation. While this data points to gender bias in academia, it also puts a question mark on the credibility of the tomes of literature produced every day. One might point out that only about 56% of the researchers in the study were assigned a gender, but the trend is pretty clear here.

In this context, claims of so and so researchers being mentioned so many times in research papers might raise eyebrows. Questions might also arise on the overall quality of the papers if the peers on the roster are from the same roost. It is high time that organizations are forms that regularly flag suspicious researchers. John Ioannidis of Stanford University suggests that researchers who have more than 25 self citations must be looked at closely. This suggestion might not necessarily mean that underhand means have been at play in these cases. However, it certainly sets up an initial safety line beyond which the whistle must be blown for appraisal.

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The Viewpoints

The scenario in this problem has changed a lot since the late 70s. In 1979, Eugene Garfield noted that self-citations do not make much of a difference because to self-cite a lot, one has to make corresponding significant contributions. The claim was made in good faith. However, with the number research journals doubling up in 13 years, self-citation is an easier art now. If the scope of research and education has increased, so has plagiarism and self-citation that undermine genuine efforts. Fabrication at this level not only reduces the credibility of available literature but also raises questions on parameters of a research activity.

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With the data before us, the positive side is that we can at least make an estimate about the husk. The onus is definitely on academia to thresh and flail to keep the research business clean as a bone. Stricter measures against unjustified citations should be made, for instance, a general rule to tone things down at present.

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