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Is it ethical to privately thank authors when you discover they’ve cited your work? Can it be looked upon like you’re trying to gain future favour? Or like the citation itself was for any reason other than purely academic reasons?

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    While there is technically nothing wrong with thanking somebody for citing you, doing so however puts a focus on that you "play the citation statistics game", which is probably not the first impression that you want to make. If you want to mention this, embed it in something scientific. For instance "I've notice that you recently had a paper on X - by the way, thanks for citing me there - and I found your conclusion very interesting. Perhaps there is a way to extend your result into direction Y?" is probably ok.
    – DCTLib
    May 18 at 17:50
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    If you do this every time and happen to achieve a successful paper, people in your field will consider your emails as spam ;)
    – Erwan
    May 18 at 17:59
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    Why would you write such an email, then? Apparently it is not one of the motives you list, so what is it? - That's certainly what I would ask myself if I received such an email: Why is he doing this?
    – user151413
    May 18 at 18:35
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    Why would you show appreciation for being cited? Either you are cited rightfully, or not. I would feel odd receiving such an email; indeed, I have never received such an email, as far as I remember.
    – user151413
    May 18 at 18:37
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    In a way, this would be like thanking your neighbor for parking in their driveway instead of yours. Thanking them isn't unethical at all; but they're just following normal rules and conventions, so thanking them for it (even though it does make your life better) is kind of strange. May 19 at 6:54

6 Answers 6

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It is fine, and they are not likely to look on it in those ways you say.

But they are likely to think it is a waste of time, unless you also have something else to say that is more interesting, for example a comment or question on their paper.

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    In this answer I just meant that it is ethically fine. As others have said it is weird and feeds the citation gaming.
    – Oliver882
    May 19 at 15:35
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It's not really appropriate to thank them for citing you, which is something they are obliged to do if your work is relevant and shouldn't do if it is not.

What may be appropriate is to thank them for taking the time to understand a very important point and for how well they've summarized your work and note that they've given you a new insight into it (or how it relates to other work). That is thank them for their work and insights.

Normally the point of an email in such a case would be to point out a more recent work that they've missed (of yours or someone else), or to point out that there's a subtlety that they overlooked or (more humbly) to question why they didn't use that approach or used a particular alternative, or asking them to comment on some followon work that you are doing or proposing.

Actually, this last is the most common time people contact me about my papers, to ask for comment or help on something they are trying to do or proposing to do. And sometimes it can be an invitation to collaboration of some kind.

It is a good idea to start a dialogue with people that are working on similar things and have a compatible approach - getting to know the people in the field is important for matters like conferences, grants, examiners, sabbaticals, etc. It is particularly important in times where travel is more constrained.

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Is it ethical to privately thank authors when you discover they’ve cited your work?

I don't think it is a question of ethics, but would be weird.

Can it be looked upon like you’re trying to gain future favour?

No, but I would view the email as unusual, but not trying to gain favor.

Or like the citation itself was for any reason other than purely academic reasons?

By who? Both you and the author know the citation was only based upon merit (or the original author's motivation).

Instead of thanking, just drop a the authors a note saying you found their recent paper interesting. Perhaps something like:

Dear Dr. Smith,

I saw your recent paper, New Widgetology updates. I was impressed with your advancement/progress/work and how you build upon existing work/theory/etc.

< Add a comment, question, invite to collaborate, have a Zoom call here>. user354948

That will let them know you read their paper.

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  • What request would be unusual?
    – user354948
    May 18 at 17:55
  • Updated to add "No, but I would view the email as unusual, but not trying to gain favor." May 18 at 18:02
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    I would also find a note like that weird, unless you have a specific comment or question. At least in my circles, saying a something to that effect in person would be normal and nice, but an email just to say that, expecially if you don't know the authors, would also be weird.
    – Kimball
    May 19 at 11:54
  • Even better, you might want to seek synergies between their work and yours. Something along the lines of "As you probably know, I am doing research in the area of Sepuling. I am wondering, if your new widgetology method is applicable to Sepulkaria." May 19 at 16:34
  • @Kimball good point. I added text to address your comment May 19 at 17:15
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There is an elephant in the room, and I feel you are not addressing it.

The citation in itself has no intrinsic intellectual value. You may be flattered that your person has been cited—but in reality it is your work (most likely with your coauthors), not your person.

Therefore, why would you be thankful? If it is because you found the citing work interesting, then you should say thanks to all the interesting papers you have read, not only the ones citing you.

If it is because you see your citation counts growing ... well, keep in mind that the "real" worth of citations is logarithmic: it makes no difference if you have been cited 2 or 5 times; the real difference is between having 10s or 1000s of citations. And even that difference is simply stating "how many research slaves (phds, postdocs and the likes) have the author had", unless the author is a world-famous expert on the topic (a status you do not reach with citations).

If you cheer each single citation you receive, you are (involuntarily and as a side-effect) feeding the citation gaming.

Additionally, you are enforcing (again, involuntarily and as a side-effect) the belief that citation ranking have to mean something and that the citation-based metrics have some intrinsic value (therefore feeding the citation games).

Finally, if I would receive such a thank mail, I would think that you are a naive young researcher that believes in meritocracy, that understand nothing of the power balance in research, that do not understand that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I would reply to you asking "why?".

Disclaimer: I am out of academia since years, and my h-index is 19 (yes, pun intended, citations and related metrics have no intrinsic values. I am just mentioning it for your pleasure).

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  • In some fields, citation counts are much lower, and there are differences between the population of papers than have been cited 5 times and the population of papers that have been cited 2 times (but, for individual papers, the noise still overwhelms the signal). May 19 at 17:52
  • @EarlGrey No, no coauthors, thanks. I guess we naive people think that you guys are cynical. Of course I believe in meritocracy: I never wrote anything awful that was published and cited.
    – user354948
    May 19 at 22:47
  • @user354948 do you mean I am 1/3 right or 2/3 right or 3/3 right? I especially hope you will ponder about the deep reasons you are (so much) thankful for the citation.
    – EarlGrey
    May 20 at 5:25
  • @EarlGrey Ok, maybe the reasons make the thankyou unwarranted. Good point.
    – user354948
    May 20 at 12:35
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I strongly advise against this.

There seems to be this fallacy that everything in academia is ''ethical'' or ''not ethical'' and that's all that matters (similar to the fallacy of people learning a language who divide things into ''grammatical'' and ''not grammatical'' in that language and don't appreciate that something can be grammatical and still sound strange).

Yes it's ''ethical'' in the sense that it's not wrong, but it's most definitely not a normal thing to do in academia and would look strange. It is not normal practice and it is just ''white noise'' to clog people's email inboxes with random pointless emails like this. If someone sent me an email like this, I would just delete it and be vaguely annoyed that I had to spend a bit of time reading and deleting it.

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A simple "thank you" unethical? OMG how did we get to this place?!

It would be perfectly fine and not at all weird.

As long as you are simply thanking them for acknowledging your work and not making a big deal about it, it's simply a normal, decent thing a person can say to another person. We are after all still human beings.

If you add some additional chit-chat or mention something related to research they might find of interest, or "while I've got you here, I'd like to as a question" it may help to make your message feel more normal to you and to them, if you feel it's a concern.

Academicians should not live in balkanized ivory towers, they should be able to feel a sense of community and camaraderie1, and how better to do so than to treat each other in a warm and social way.

How can a simple "thank you" be anything but good?

Beyond that, you may make a friend, or find further direct discussion useful, or even collaborate some day.

Consider it an ice-breaker; go for it!


1though it may vary by field, there really used to be much more of this decades ago than there is now, and while some folks feel cut-throat competition brings out the best in everyone, I'm not so sure.

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    It would be weird. I have never been thanked for citing a paper and never heard from a collague that they experienced something like that. I would consider such an email weird because I don't like being thanked for following good scientific practice. A common way to break the ice is to congratulate someone for a successful publication and an interesting paper. The focus shouldn't be on the citation.
    – Roland
    May 19 at 5:08
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    @Roland I have, it was nice, and I'm sorry to hear you haven't.
    – uhoh
    May 19 at 5:59
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    I don't see why it would be weird to get such a thanks; it is nice when someone recognises and cites your work. Just because people don't usually do this doesn't mean we need to treat people as oddballs if they do.
    – Ben
    May 19 at 7:46
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    If it is unclear to anyone why even a "simple thank you" brings up any ethical considerations have a look at what happens when citations become currency in a quid-pro-quo agreements retractionwatch.com/2022/05/17/… May 19 at 17:12
  • @user2705196 that could be the basis of a very interesting new answer, please consider posting as such.
    – uhoh
    May 19 at 21:31

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