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This is a trend that I have noticed more and more over the years as a reviewer for a number of journals: a group of authors from country X submits a manuscript, where the vast majority (if not all) of the cited works are recent papers from other authors of the same country X. Remarkable cases that I have personally seen include a manuscript with 30+ references, all of research work entirely developed within a single country.

If the authors introduce a disproportionate number of self-citations, I think it is fair to raise the issue in my review. But what should I do, as a frequent reviewer, when I notice this "citational nationalism"? Should I point it out, or just let it slide?

I am not entirely comfortable with this practice, as it can be used as a way to boost citations while avoiding rejections: research groups on the same topic, all within the same country, generally tend to know each other well, so they can reach (possibly tacitly) a "I cite you, you cite me" kind of deal. At the very least, it makes me think that the authors did not perform a thorough and fair bibliographic review.

To be clear, I admit this could be justified in some fields. For instance, it seems reasonable to me that many of the scholars studying the history and culture of X work in X-based academic institutions; also, some "big science" projects are only developed at a handful of places worldwide. However, I am in a STEM field where the research is routinely carried out by groups all around the world and does not require any particularly hard-to-access tools.

How should I proceed in these cases?

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    "research groups on the same topic, all within the same country, generally tend to know each other well" -> which in turn probably also means they know each others work well and are naturally more likely to cite it.
    – blues
    May 22, 2023 at 7:06
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    I suggest that this is not actually a new or growing trend - US-based researchers have long produced papers that mainly cite other US-based researchers. While there are certainly sometimes issues that need to be addressed, we should be careful not to impose double standards.
    – avid
    May 22, 2023 at 7:20
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    @avid TBF, the US spans a continent, and has a whole lot of Universities. I.e., it's not Belgium.
    – RonJohn
    May 22, 2023 at 7:31
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    @blues you are not wrong, but again this goes to suggest that the bibliographic review is not really thorough --- when I write a paper, I try to make a fair analysis of the (updated) state of the art on a topic, not the first few papers that pop into my mind
    – GioMott
    May 22, 2023 at 8:05
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    Are the papers in English, or the language of/used by "country X"? If the latter, it could be a bias from what the writers can read more easily.
    – TripeHound
    May 22, 2023 at 10:10

2 Answers 2

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I think that this should be based on your knowledge of the literature. It is possible that this is justified because related research may indeed be mainly or exclusively based in the country in question. I'm sure that there are examples for this even in STEM. It may also be the case that authors are slightly but unconsciously biased, i.e., that indeed a lot is going on in the country in question but that, given the actual situation, they cite their own country too much and should cite some specific papers from elsewhere that they currently ignore. These situations are rather benign and because they are possible, I don't think that this should always be raised as an issue.

For sure, if you know work from elsewhere that you think should be cited, by all means mention it. Even if it's quite a bit. Also, you can challenge some references based on lack of relevance. All this can be done in principle without explicitly suspecting that there is a systematic bias in favour of their home country. One reasonable thing you can do if you suspect an issue but your own literature overview is limited is to specifically look around for related papers from abroad. I also occasionally look into cited papers if I suspect that they don't contribute anything of importance in order to say that they should not be cited. With these actions you work toward improving the situation without any accusation of the authors or getting into problematic discussions.

Even going further and mentioning the issue explicitly is in my view rather harmless. I don't think using a sentence of the kind "24 of 26 references are from Iceland, and there is for sure more relevant research on this outside Iceland (example)" is problematic, at least if the situation is extreme enough. Maybe even with additional extra hint to the editor in the Comments to Editor. I can well imagine doing this (and I have done so in the past, even though if I remember correctly only in cases in which I knew that authors and cited people would have some personal connection) if the bias becomes all too obvious, but I should always be able to give at least examples of what to cite, and if I don't want to see certain references that are there, I would need to know them well enough to argue explicitly that they shouldn't (unless the issue is that they are cited for some methodology that is in fact older, in which case I can just say "cite the original" from a different country).

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    +1. One of the fields I contribute to is formal methods, and the French seem to disproportionately contribute to this field. If I were reviewing a paper from a French author and all of the citations (or almost all of the citations) from also from French authors, it would surprise me no more (and possibly a little less) than if I were reviewing a paper from a US author and the citations were all or almost all from US authors. In both cases, there would be a bias, but there are so many good articles from each, I'd probably shrug. However, if we're talking about Iceland*, yeah, it's different. May 22, 2023 at 18:39
  • *Iceland is only an example, and no offense is intended towards authors from Iceland. May 22, 2023 at 18:39
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I believe you should NOT approach the problem like "cite people outside country C". If you are aware of papers they should have cited or not cited, you might make their omission or inclusion a bigger deal than you would for a paper with "diverse" citations. But don't approach the problem as "diversity at any cost" - in the end you want the most appropriate citations, no matter which countries/institutions the authors come from.

What I did is recommend to cite those other highly influential works that are very relevant to their problem. Not in a way of "cite someone else besides local researchers" but simply "inadequate literature review, papers X, Y, Z, W, ... are all highly relevant and in some cases overlap with this paper". You might even go a step further and suggest removing references, eg: "paper X is highly relevant to the work in question and should be cited in place of paper Y, which is only tangentially related", but I haven't done that.

Similar to the problem is also an inverse side of it - where (it seems) some very relevant papers were omitted because they came from "undesirable" country. This is a bit less glaring because purposefully omitting one country or two doesn't stand out quite as much as including just papers of one country does. But it is ultimately a similar problem - papers are cited or not cited for scientifically irrelevant reasons, so I believe it makes the most sense to also recommend citing of those omitted papers.

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    While I agree with your first couple sentences, I didn't get the impression the OP was aiming for diversity at any cost, but they are trying to deal with apparent citation-cartel behavior.
    – Kimball
    May 22, 2023 at 18:34
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    I definitely like the idea of recommending what papers are irrelevant and don't need citation. I hate when a reviewer asks me to add citations knowing full well that I'm already bumping up against page limits and have trimmed every excess word I can find in order to make my paper fit within those limits. (It's even worse when reviewers ask me to address whole new subtopics, though. I then have to play the game of, "Which of these things can I remove without destroying the paper?") May 22, 2023 at 18:43
  • Ugh, citations really shouldn't be counted against page limits, for exactly this reason. May 23, 2023 at 19:30

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