I checking my google scholar page, when I noticed that one of my papers, of which I am a co-author, had been cited by an unknown academic. I read the article, which was on gene regulatory networks, and my paper is in computational neuroscience. The reference wording doesn't make any sense though. The only connection is the concept of an attractor network.

If I met this person at a conference, and he went about relating my paper to his work, I would call nonsense. This must happen to more well known academics all the time, so is it best just to let these things slide? I suppose if I was really famous and getting 200 citations a week it would be too hard to track every bad reference down, but I only have a few.

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    Don't take this the wrong way, but in the cut-throat world of academic papers, having only a few might make you want to leave it. If someone digs, they'll see "Wow, this person cited him/her for no reason; awkward" with the chance of negative impact on you being minimal. If you did have the citation removed for whatever reason, then that's one less citation you have. Like you said, you're not exactly getting 200 a week - a single citation might be important for crossing some threshold. Not that people should be putting such emphasis on a single number, but they seem to be more and more.
    – corsiKa
    Oct 26, 2012 at 22:53
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    I would be glad someone in another field had read my paper and was citing it. It wouldn't bother me whether the reference was relevant or not. Maybe reading your paper inspired them in some unrelated way. Then again, I've just finished my PhD and every citation counts. But I don't see much point in being antagonistic.
    – Phil
    Jan 22, 2013 at 11:07
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    @Phil, citations may be better overall, but this will confuse readers. If your thesis was 'Evidence shows that roses are red, violets are blue', and I wrote: "Flowers, see Phil(2013), are by pollinated by bees". You might say my citation totally missed the specific impact of your work. If I wanted a reference to flowers, I should be citing an authoritative field guide. My paper was on a special class of attractor networks, which have been around for decades. The author should have cited a seminal paper in the field instead of mine. Any reader would likely get confused about my work was about.
    – Ksiresh
    Jan 22, 2013 at 15:58
  • @Ksiresh Nice example. I once had someone cite one of my papers in support of the statement that plants need light :) Had I been asked to review the paper, I would have pointed out how silly that was (and I have done this when reviewing papers with similarly egregious citations to my own work), but since I wasn't asked to review it, I'm happy to have the citation. A couple more like that, and my h-index will increment. Feb 26, 2016 at 7:51

5 Answers 5


Well, what can you do? Not much. I can confirm that it does indeed happen… sometime people even cite a paper of yours to justify a conclusion that you have not reached in the paper, and even one that you strongly disagree with.

One option is to let it slide. You are not responsible for the content of papers that refer to yours, or the accuracy of their citations for that matter. The paper author is responsible, and to some extent, the journal’s referees. (I tend to spend quite some time checking citations when I review papers, but that might just be me being overly sensitive to this particular issue.)

Another option is to contact the paper’s corresponding author, and ask him point blank. You have read his paper, and you are unclear as to the extent of the connection between his writing and yours. See what it gives.

Finally, in the current way academic research works, you do not really have any mean to call out their behaviour publicly. I do not believe you should, either.

  • Thanks for your pragmatic response. I do agree with your opinion that is not my business to call them out on it.
    – Ksiresh
    Oct 26, 2012 at 9:35

There is a huge gulf between what would happen in an ideal world and what the norms are in this case.

"Ideally", you'd get in touch with the author(s), explain that you don't see what their paper has to do with yours; they'd explain why they think it is relevant or agree that it's not, and modify the paper accordingly. (Almost everything is online, so modification after publication is a possibility.)

In the actual world, citations are of benefit to you, even if they are stupid. Journals are mostly not set up to remove citations easily. No one will check, and if they do check, the detriment will be to the citer, not the cited. So you "shouldn't" do anything about it, and the author would probably be quite surprised if you did (especially if you weren't discreet about it). If you really feel like re-calculating your h-index with that paper removed, go for it. But this sort of thing happens all the time (I think all of my papers with over about 50 citations have been cited stupidly at least once), so you're free to just consider it part of the measurement error inherent in looking at citations.

Incidentally, the ideal isn't necessarily the pragmatic ideal. Doing anything important on the basis of small differences in numbers of citations is fraught with error even if all citations are sensible ones. There's a reasonable argument to be made that you shouldn't bother unless the paper is in your field and is citing you in support of something that your paper showed the converse of. Getting your work exactly backwards to advance their own idea isn't doing you or them any favors, so you should try to work that out.

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    "Almost everything is online, so modification after publication is a possibility." - no, please don't introduce that aspect into the system. If I reference a paper now, I need to be sure that in a few years, readers will still find the same paper that I reference, not something modified. Almost everything is online, but that does by no means imply it could or should be modified. (Adding new revisions is another topic, but the unchanged original version would still be around then.) Sep 26, 2015 at 23:55
  • @O.R.Mapper - I was assuming robust version control in our ideal world. Also, if you care that your reference actually mean anything, people who follow it should get any erratum up front, so they can immediately tell if your reference still supports whatever you wanted it to.
    – Rex Kerr
    Sep 27, 2015 at 12:52
  • @O.R.Mapper I guess in the ideal world, papers would be published with version control and your reference would point to a particular version. Feb 26, 2016 at 7:53

is it best just to let these things slide?

Possibly. It's certainly a reasonable thing to do. Also, if you have many citations of that paper, I'd definitely say let this slide.

The reference wording doesn't make any sense though. The only connection is the concept of an attractor network.

So, the references makes a bit of sense, but the wording doesn't. Unless that paper makes an invalid claim regarding the contents of your paper, that's not so bad. Certainly it doesn't reflect poorly on you.

I would call nonsense.

You're being much too harsh. Maybe the author typed in the wrong citation? Maybe they meant to reword the text near the citation and forgot to do it when submitting the final version? etc. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

If this really bugs you, email the authors of the citing paper, tell them you noticed the citation, and ask them if they could explain briefly in what context they used your results (i.e. not giving them your impression beforehand). If they don't respond - let it go. If they do explain, and get it wrong, then you can write back saying "Oh, but you wrote that XYZ while in fact my paper is ABC"; note you are not judging their abilities/skills/intelligence, just politely pointing out a discrepancy. If they at all care, this is the point they might consider a revision and/or an erratum, and/or a change in future uses of the same text/ideas (e.g. journal version of conference paper, placement in thesis or book chapter).

It's still quite likely that they'll tell you "Oh, well, maybe you're right, but what's done is done". You'll have to live with that, I'm afraid.


Let it go. There are probably many times you are inappropriately left out. A few times when you are improperly cited. And some times where they didn't understand what you were doing. As long as there is not some clear pattern--for example your former advisor pushing people to cite you (really him)--it's not worth dealing with it. There is just so, so, sooo much imprecision in the arena of citations. You will drive yourself crazy if you obsess on individual instances of citation. (Note, I'm not saying not to worry about general trends...they have validity...but don't obsess on individual data points.)


Additionally to what F'x suggested, I would suggest you to discuss the details of this situation in a personal website or blog.

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    I strongly advise against that. Don’t get drawn into a flamewar when the benefits are unclear (what would you gain that you cannot from sending an email to the citing author?) while the risk is very real (at the very least, being perceived as overly critical or rude).
    – F'x
    Oct 27, 2012 at 8:38
  • I think it is useful to give other alternatives to the person asking the question. I just proposed one. For instance, you may approach the author of the paper citing your work, and then you can publish the dicussion on a personal website. You might tell to the other author what your intention is. Oct 27, 2012 at 14:37
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    you most definitely need the other author’s permission to post an email exchange online
    – F'x
    Oct 27, 2012 at 14:44

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