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I checking my google scholar page, when I noticed that one of my papers, of which I am a co-author, had been cited by an unknown academic. I read the article, which was on gene regulatory networks, and my paper is in computational neuroscience. The reference wording doesn't make any sense though. The only connection is the concept of an attractor network.

If I met this person at a conference, and he went about relating my paper to his work, I would call nonsense. This must happen to more well known academics all the time, so is it best just to let these things slide? I suppose if I was really famous and getting 200 citations a week it would be too hard to track every bad reference down, but I only have a few.

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Don't take this the wrong way, but in the cut-throat world of academic papers, having only a few might make you want to leave it. If someone digs, they'll see "Wow, this person cited him/her for no reason; awkward" with the chance of negative impact on you being minimal. If you did have the citation removed for whatever reason, then that's one less citation you have. Like you said, you're not exactly getting 200 a week - a single citation might be important for crossing some threshold. Not that people should be putting such emphasis on a single number, but they seem to be more and more. –  corsiKa Oct 26 '12 at 22:53
    
I would be glad someone in another field had read my paper and was citing it. It wouldn't bother me whether the reference was relevant or not. Maybe reading your paper inspired them in some unrelated way. Then again, I've just finished my PhD and every citation counts. But I don't see much point in being antagonistic. –  Phil Jan 22 '13 at 11:07
    
@Phil, citations may be better overall, but this will confuse readers. If your thesis was 'Evidence shows that roses are red, violets are blue', and I wrote: "Flowers, see Phil(2013), are by pollinated by bees". You might say my citation totally missed the specific impact of your work. If I wanted a reference to flowers, I should be citing an authoritative field guide. My paper was on a special class of attractor networks, which have been around for decades. The author should have cited a seminal paper in the field instead of mine. Any reader would likely get confused about my work was about. –  Ksiresh Jan 22 '13 at 15:58

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Well, what can you do? Not much. I can confirm that it does indeed happen… sometime people even cite a paper of yours to justify a conclusion that you have not reached in the paper, and even one that you strongly disagree with.

One option is to let it slide. You are not responsible for the content of papers that refer to yours, or the accuracy of their citations for that matter. The paper author is responsible, and to some extent, the journal’s referees. (I tend to spend quite some time checking citations when I review papers, but that might just be me being overly sensitive to this particular issue.)

Another option is to contact the paper’s corresponding author, and ask him point blank. You have read his paper, and you are unclear as to the extent of the connection between his writing and yours. See what it gives.

Finally, in the current way academic research works, you do not really have any mean to call out their behaviour publicly. I do not believe you should, either.

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Thanks for your pragmatic response. I do agree with your opinion that is not my business to call them out on it. –  Ksiresh Oct 26 '12 at 9:35

There is a huge gulf between what would happen in an ideal world and what the norms are in this case.

"Ideally", you'd get in touch with the author(s), explain that you don't see what their paper has to do with yours; they'd explain why they think it is relevant or agree that it's not, and modify the paper accordingly. (Almost everything is online, so modification after publication is a possibility.)

In the actual world, citations are of benefit to you, even if they are stupid. Journals are mostly not set up to remove citations easily. No one will check, and if they do check, the detriment will be to the citer, not the cited. So you "shouldn't" do anything about it, and the author would probably be quite surprised if you did (especially if you weren't discreet about it). If you really feel like re-calculating your h-index with that paper removed, go for it. But this sort of thing happens all the time (I think all of my papers with over about 50 citations have been cited stupidly at least once), so you're free to just consider it part of the measurement error inherent in looking at citations.

Incidentally, the ideal isn't necessarily the pragmatic ideal. Doing anything important on the basis of small differences in numbers of citations is fraught with error even if all citations are sensible ones. There's a reasonable argument to be made that you shouldn't bother unless the paper is in your field and is citing you in support of something that your paper showed the converse of. Getting your work exactly backwards to advance their own idea isn't doing you or them any favors, so you should try to work that out.

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Additionally to what F'x suggested, I would suggest you to discuss the details of this situation in a personal website or blog.

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I strongly advise against that. Don’t get drawn into a flamewar when the benefits are unclear (what would you gain that you cannot from sending an email to the citing author?) while the risk is very real (at the very least, being perceived as overly critical or rude). –  F'x Oct 27 '12 at 8:38
    
I think it is useful to give other alternatives to the person asking the question. I just proposed one. For instance, you may approach the author of the paper citing your work, and then you can publish the dicussion on a personal website. You might tell to the other author what your intention is. –  Francisco Morales Oct 27 '12 at 14:37
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you most definitely need the other author’s permission to post an email exchange online –  F'x Oct 27 '12 at 14:44

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