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A paper (quite) related to some work my coauthors and I have recently appeared as a preprint. This paper cites ours; however, it does not do so in the body of the paper (intro, proofs, etc.), but only in the references: with the LaTeX command \nocite, I assume.

Doing so seems strange to me, as it does not discuss relevance, nor compare, nor even state what the cited paper does. It's a citation without context.

Am I overreacting? More importantly, am I wrong: are there situations where this type of citation makes sense, and, if so, which ones?

Edit: by "makes sense," I mean "is justified for academic-related/citation etiquette reasons."

  • 2
    Perhaps not ideal, but unacceptable on the other hand is probably too strong. – Buffy Feb 12 at 17:57
  • Fair, my wording is a tad too dramatic. – Clement C. Feb 12 at 17:59
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    I think it happens by accident quite regularly. Maybe the citation was removed from the text but remained in the references due to not recompiling bibtex. – Thomas Feb 12 at 18:26
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There are lots of situations where this type of citation naturally emerges:

  • You want to cite a paper that you have gotten inspiration from, but you cannot pinpoint any specific objective relation between that paper and yours. For example, some equalities appearing in that paper look similar to some equalities in yours (even though they involve completely different objects), and you have built some parallels in your mind without ever making them rigorous. You may try to be open and mention these parallels in your paper, but they will be so vague and subjective that readers will tap their foreheads and referees will ask you to remove the sentences.

  • You have cited a paper whose results you used in one of your proofs, but then you find a better/simpler proof and no longer had any use for the citation. But you never bothered to remove the citation, since you might well need it again for something different. It's much easier to keep it in and only remove it at the very end of the process, when the paper is about to get published.

  • You have written a long paper and then split it into two. Each of them still has the full bibliography of the original paper, because removing references is thankless and boring work and you may need them again (see the previous point).

  • You have pre-emptively added the citation to the bibliography since you know you will want to cite it in a forthcoming section of your paper. That section never gets written.

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    But the last two points are not really reasons, are they? They're merely convenience for the authors, and basically just a subsitute for private citation managing (in particular, why would that get public?) – Clement C. Feb 12 at 17:55
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    Preprints are public in the sense of "anyone can read them", not in the sense of "set in stone". Since unused references in the bibliography do not interfere with reading, there is little reason to clean them out before posting a preprint (unless maybe you can save a page by doing so). – darij grinberg Feb 12 at 18:07
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    I may be mistaken, but I don't think arXiv preprints (at least in my field, computer science) are seen that way. People keep track of new preprints, read them, cite them, discuss them. – Clement C. Feb 12 at 18:10
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    @ClementC. One problem with fields that rely on preprints is that, although journals and publishing costs are often criticized, this is the sort of thing they tend to audit better than authors. Most journals I've published in have an explicit policy that all references appearing in a reference list are cited someplace in the text, and their copyeditors will verify that this is the case before publishing the final version. I think darij is simply pointing out that in the preprint process there is no one who has this task as a specific job. – Bryan Krause Feb 12 at 18:13
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    removing references is thankless and boring work — People still manage references manually? How hard can it be to rerun bibtex (or whatever)? – JeffE Feb 13 at 7:00

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