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A high citation rate is desirable in academia. Citing other work doesn't cost much, so citations are cheap to give but desirable to get. That brings me to the question:

If a previous article addresses a topic similar to the one I'm writing, is that a sufficient reason to cite it? Or should the prior article meet a minimum quality to "deserve" a citation? To put it bluntly: if I'm aware of a prior crappy article, should I ignore it, or cite it and write why it's crap (of course in a more diplomatic way)?

In my field, some articles questioning anthropogenic climate change get quite a lot of citations from colleagues pointing out flaws in their reasoning or statistics...

Note that I'm exclusively talking about peer-reviewed publications.

  • I think the question you ask in the second paragraph is much more interesting than the complaint you register in the first paragraph. Who knows why someone fails to cite something? Lazy, personal grudge, carelessness... I would edit out the first paragraph and let the good question stand on its own. – DQdlM Aug 2 '13 at 16:32
  • @KennyPeanuts Fair enough, even if my need to vent a bit was what led me to the question in the first place, it doesn't add anything to the question itself. I've edited it out now. – gerrit Aug 2 '13 at 17:20
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There's a certain amount of judgment that needs to be exercised here. One of my more frequently cited publications is an attempt to correct methodological errors in a previous work (which was also highly cited). While it got the point across, it has also led to my work not being cited by the other authors, even though they've adopted the methodological points laid out in my paper.

Now, part of the reason why we discussed the work in detail was because there were major problems that led us to being unable to reproduce their results when we used their techniques with the "advantages" of modern technology. Since it in fact "inspired" our work, we felt the extended discussion was appropriate. However, if the same paper were to present results that were simply wrong, and didn't have the same "primacy" within the research literature, we would have probably ignored it.

Literature citations in standard journal papers (as opposed to review articles) are not meant to be ecumenical or exhaustive. Your job, as an author, is to exercise judgment as to which articles provide an accurate overview of the state of work in the field, and provide the best support for the arguments you wish to make.

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  • I think your last paragraph nails it and I assume that the decisions about relevance are the judgement calls you refer to in the first paragraph. However the way it is written it seems like the judgement you refer to is in reference to not causing petty grudges with those you criticize (which I don't think should be factored into a decision about whether to cite or not). – DQdlM Aug 2 '13 at 16:36
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Negative citations is what you describe. It is something of a fallacy of the system that a paper may get many citations and therefore seems important when it is clearly sub-par and is referenced in a negative connotation.

Seen objectively, one should give credit where it is due. If someone was first to realize something then that is the origin of the idea (in official terms), how good or bad the paper is, is irrelevant. In some cases first discoveries may just be gut feelings and not well-founded.

I sometimes have to bite my lip when I reference some papers because I really do not think they deserve it (because I know the background) but realize there are no two ways about it. You can of course chose not to reference it, as you have the freedom to chose what we cite, but you may end up getting reviews asking you to add it (if it is something key).

In some cases it is possible to provide objective criticism of a paper. The problem is that the shortcomings will have to be clear.

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It depends what is your goal. If you are doing a thorough review of literature, you will have to cite prior work, even if your opinion of it is low (and you can briefly state why). If you are doing a comment, follow-up or other work where criticism of the prior work is key to your argumentation, then of course you have to cite it. But, if the field is otherwise plentiful and there are other more successful prior works which you can cite, you don't need to be exhaustive, and you can thus omit those works which you consider subpar (or of low originality, or derivate works).

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