Why am I going round in circles? From self-citation to citation cartels

Citations are extensively used as a proxy measure to evaluate a scholar’s work and ‘reputation’. Therefore, increasing the number of citations of one’s own papers is highly desirable, although it may become subject to controversial practices. The easiest way to boost one’s citation count is self-citation, even though journal editors and general ethics of academic publishing generally try to discourage its excessive use.

 Another way of boosting citations is citing each other’s articles. A citation circle is a group of scholars who tend to cite each other’ s work significantly more than they cite other authors in the field. Still, it is very hard to detect it with simple algorithms as it is in the case of self-citations: while defending the use of quantitative citation reports for policy making, Garfield & Welljams-Dorof (1992) name citation circles as a possible limitation to the approach but their conclusion about them is that “they are rarely, if ever, documented and identified.” More recently, however, Greenberg’s (2009) research shows how an “unfounded authority” gets created  through a citation network affected by biases, amplification, and invention.

Citation gaming reaches a completely different scale, though, when it involves editors and journals themselves, in the attempt to raise their impact factors. These are no more just citations circles but citations cartels. Scholarly Kitchen addresses this issue in their 2012 blog post The Emergence of a Citation Cartel, which reviews a number of case studies in which groups of editors and journals supposedly placed self-referential papers in a cooperating journal: “a cheap and effective strategy if the goal is to boost one’s impact factor”.

Murat Gulsacan

Michele Luchetti

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