I have noticed in a number of papers, including those in top journals, a common dirty practice which consists of self citing your previous works and omitting other important references in the area (I admit some of them at least include the classic references). For instance Prof. John Doe writes a paper and his references look like:

[1] John Doe (1970). Paper 1.

[2] John Doe (1971). Paper 2.


[200] John Doe (2014). Paper 200.

[201] Issac Newton (1687). Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

I am aware of the concept of Publication Bias, which is related to a bias with regard to what is published. I wonder if there is also something related to self-citation bias or citation bias (it might also be the case that a person only cites a group of researchers (friends?))?

This, of course, is not just a matter of taste, but it is a practice that complicates the literature review in a certain area.

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    One complexity is that it is hard to distinguish between "dirty practice" and the natural fact that someone is more aware of her or his own work than the work of others. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 13:32
  • @MaartenBuis Good point. I agree it would not be something easy to study.
    – Barlett
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 13:32
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    In a perfect world, peer review should ensure that no relevant citations are omitted (and no irrelevant ones are added). Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, so we get both this issue and the complementary one of referees asking to include semi-relevant citations to their own papers. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 14:26
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    It's not necessarily 'dirty'. In some fields where the number of researchers is very small, it's just normal that bibliographies have a high rate of name recurrence. Also if you publish a lot of methods papers, you will inevitably cite them in the following publications.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 14:30
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    @O.R.Mapper Indeed, I'm not petitioning that all references must have many citations or that citing things once is a nefarious act, however disproportionate self-citation of peripheral works seems useful evidence to distinguish "I publish a lot of closely related material" from "I plug my papers whenever I can for extra citations", per the comment I was replying too.
    – blmoore
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 14:24

4 Answers 4


This problem has been receiving significant attention in recent years. Among other thing, there was a recent scandal around "citation cartels", in which journal editorial staff organized not only to ensure their own journals self-cited but also so that groups of conspirator journals would cite one another in order to raise impact factor while adding a layer of indirection to make it harder to track. Such journals also sometimes strong-arm authors into adding citations to other publications within the same journal.

I don't know if anybody has tried to further tease apart the different between intentional (i.e., citation cartel) and unintentional citation bias. It would be interesting to study, but may be difficult given the amount of intentional bias that some are using the game the system.

  • While relevant, this mostly deals with journal-level citation gaming, which is quite distinct from self-citations at the author or research group level, and the motivations also differ alot. Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 20:30

I would say that the use of self-citations that you describe is very common, but whether it's dirty is not clear-cut and it's probably difficult to study. I can also see several different perspectives, some more malicious than others:

  1. Bias due to better knowledge of your own and related researches (friends) work. I find this rather benign, often unintential and natural.
  2. When providing a reference to support a specific point, everything else equal, most researchers will probably cite their own work before the work of others. This with the assumption that both papers provide equally good evidence/arguments, and that the author can only use a maximum number references for his paper (which is commonly the case). This behaviour is probably most often seen in soft/weak references of general points in e.g. introductions and discussions. I personally find this behaviour maybe not ideal, but rather human.
  3. The concious choice not to cite other researchers work that would be relevant. This can come in (at least) two forms: 1) ignoring researchers with a critical perspective on your work (~academic feud), 2) wanting to "claim" the field as your own. Both of these cases should ideally be spotted during the review process, but I think it is very common so still see traces of them in published papers. The problem is probably to prove bad intent, and it is also dependent on reviewers that know the litterature in the specific field extremely well and also bother to speak up about it. This form of behaviour is naturally the most problematic one.

Under point 3, the first form (ignoring criticism) has recieved most attention. However, reading between the lines, I feel that the second form is relatively common as well, where groups of researchers try to "claim" a specific topic (intentionally or unintentionally), so that their body of work is the go-to reference for this topic. A good way to achive this would be to preferentially cite work from within the group, especially if you are already a well established researcher. This can be particularly powerful if you are writing review papers of topics, since these can be used to define the core literature of a topic for future researchers that discover the field (probably related: Matthew effect).

I don't know about studies that try to quantify how common these specific behaviours are. However, the study of citation patterns and self-citations is common, and two papers that touch upon the things mentioned here are Hyland (2003) and Fowler & Aksnes (2007). Hyland (2003) looks at how self-citations can be used for different purposes, while Fowler & Aksnes (2007) tries to quantify the "value" of self-citations (which seems to be quite large).


For another study of this and related practices, see Nefarious Numbers, by Doug Arnold and Kristine Fowler. They review how gaming citations led the Internation Journal of Nonlinear Science and Numerical Simulation to have by far the highest impact factor in its field, despite being a third-tier journal according to expert opinion.

Another famous case involved the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals.


In this article you find empirical evidence for the self-citation bias:

Marc Brysbaert & Sinéad Smyth, SELF-ENHANCEMENT IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: THE SELF-CITATION BIAS, Psychologica Belgica 2011, 51-2, 129-137.

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    Welcome to Academia SE. Can you please summarise the results of the linked article and also link to the journal’s page of the article and not directly to the PDF? Otherwise your answer would be a link-only answer and would thus have to be deleted.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 9:50
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    Also, as you appear to be the author of the article you link, perhaps you could include a summary and elaborate on the position presented in the paper?
    – dionys
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 14:15

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