I recently discovered a paper of mine (pure mathematics) has been cited by a paper in a very different field (an area of applied mathematics) that I have nothing to do with. The reference to my paper is used (along with another reference) to justify some statement in the introduction, but I have never studied anything like this (I don't even understand the statement). It's clear that this citation is wrong, and while it's possible it was an honest mistake and the author was just careless, because the topics of the papers are so different (the titles are completely unrelated) and the journal and publisher are ones I've never heard of, it occurred to me this could be a case of dishonest "citation padding" (randomly adding superfluous citations).

Here are some possible reasons for citation padding:

  1. Trying to legitimize one's work by adding references to reputable papers.
  2. Either directly as part of a citation cartel to say increase impact factors, or as some indirect padding to help prevent a citation cartel from getting caught. (I don't know if the latter happens, but this is part of my question.)
  3. "Collecting dead souls" (i.e. some other nefarious scheme I haven't thought of)

Question: While I know citation cartels a real issue, is there any evidence that citation padding, outside of superfluous self-citations/citations within a citation cartel/ring, happens in more than just a few isolated cases? For instance, are there stories of shady journals encouraging this or authors doing this systematically, like there are about citation cartels?

Note: I am not asking for a diagnosis of my specific case, or what I should do, which is discussed in these related questions:

  • 14
    Not an answer to your question, but with citation manager software, it's easier for a typo or misclick to result in citing a completely different paper. So I wouldn't be quick to rule out "honest mistake", especially if the rest of the paper looks generally reasonable. Hanlon's Razor and all that. Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 0:38
  • 1
    @NateEldredge Sure, but in this case I don't think that author would ever have reason to refer to any of my papers. I don't know how citation managers other than BibTeX work---is it easy to accidentally cite a paper you would never have reason to look at?
    – Kimball
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 0:45
  • 10
    I think it's often an error by people with sloppy behavior and cavalier attitudes. I have frequently seen these carried forward. Worked with a lab group htat had 20 or so papers where the main cite for an important part of their technique was just wrong. they had cited the right person. But a paper that had nothing to do with the technique. And grad students had just carried the error forward. When I did a single paper/experiment with them I discovered it because I insist to see every reference (and have a paper copy) of a paper that I publish.
    – guest
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 2:52
  • 6
    One way this could happen by accident is if you "inherit" a large BiBTeX file from someone else (who may have expanded on someone elses and so on). Then if you are not careful about authors with the same last name, you can easily cite the wrong thing if you just use \cite{authorYear} and don't check if there are multiples of those. Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 7:59
  • 1
    Combining comments by Nate Eldredge and Tobias Kildetoft might explain away the OP's comment
    – user2768
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 8:22

1 Answer 1


Not in my experience, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This might require a genuine literature search using various keywords to give a quantified estimate for particular fields. I read citations quite closely in my field and I have only rarely seen this practice (<1%). Much more common is slightly misrepresenting what the other authors said, or referencing something a reviewer might suspect the author hasn't read, like a tangentially related book used for a brief aside. And, of course, quasi-related self-citations.

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