I work in a small interdisciplinary field in which one group writes a lot of papers that aren't good but are often read. When I publish on a topic that they have published on before, should I cite them even if their work is irrelevant to mine?

More context:

The prolific group publishes a lot of mathematical modeling papers in which the model is hidden behind a cascade of self-citation, is written in somewhat non-standard terminology, and no code or calibration data is published. My field is dominated by non-modelers who are often not equipped to judge the modeling, but who read the papers for the figures and discussion (and open peer review has shown that they often review the papers without reviewing the model).

The ethics of citation as I understand them agree with this answer in that we must cite (1) intellectual precedents of our work, (2) supporting evidence, and (3) papers that provide appropriate context. Because their methods are opaque to other modelers like myself, (1) and (2) aren't possible. The papers are also not (3) appropriate context because the science between the intro and discussion isn't done well and I view these papers as opinion pieces.

But, I can expect my non-modeler readers to look askance at my minimal citations of the group's work. As a less-established member of the community, it can look like I'm playing games with priority when I'm actually concerned about advancing the poor state of modeling in my field. I'm debating whether to stick to my principles or give in to what I perceive are poor citation practices to lower friction and look more collegial.

  • I think your question is a bit confusing. You say "When I publish on a topic that they have published on before, should I cite them even if their work is irrelevant to mine?" - how is their work irrelevant if you are publishing on a topic they have published on? Beyond that, you might be asking whether you need to cite all the works by this group when you feel like all of those works are not strong. I think you need to cite any original findings, this may be their oldest relevant publications, and anything recently applicable (i.e. a review) - you don't need to cite every intervening work.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 2, 2016 at 23:28
  • 5
    @Bryan: "how is their work irrelevant if you are publishing on a topic they have published on?" Just because two papers have the same topic doesn't automatically make one relevant to the other, does it? If I write a paper on Shakespeare, I don't cite all previous papers involving Shakespeare: there needs to be a thematic or logical connection as well. Nov 3, 2016 at 1:00
  • @PeteL.Clark Which leaves the question: If their work is irrelevant, why does fgm even bother thinking about citing them?
    – skymningen
    Nov 3, 2016 at 10:19
  • @PeteL.Clark skymningen's point is the same as mine: the question asker isn't clear about how related the work is; obviously if you define it very broadly you can get ridiculous examples like yours, but the questioner seems concerned about leaving out these citations. If it's truly just someone else that is also interested in mathematical modeling obviously they are unrelated; if it is someone else modeling the same process fgm is interested in, then it is almost certainly relevant.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 3, 2016 at 16:57

2 Answers 2


In my discipline the typical structure of an article is introduction, theory, previous research, data/methods, results, conclusion. In the section "previous research" you describe the state of the art in your field regarding the research question from your article. As I understand the OP's question, there is a group the OP disagrees with, but who are considered in your field to be important. In that case you need to refer to them (not every single publication, but one or two main publications), even if you think their way of doing things is substandard. That does not mean you have to agree with them; you can tell your audience how your approach differs form theirs and how your approach is (in your opinion) better. But ignoring an important part of your field is bad. Addressing substandard practices is how your field can move forward.

Pragmatically, not citing them in the previous results section signals to the readers, editors, and reviewers that you are not aware of important parts of your discipline or that you don't want to take part in a particular debate. Both can easily lead to your article being considered less relevant, which could get your article rejected or ignored.

  • 1
    "You need to refer to the state of your field, even if that state is in your opinion substandard." I'm not sure I follow. "Pragmatically, not citing them signals to the readers, editors, and reviewers that you are not aware of a major part of your field." Does it? It seems to me that because the literature of published papers even in a small area is often vast, authors usually are (and possibly even are forced to be) quite selective in what they choose to cite. In any case, the purpose of citation is not to show your own awareness of the literature. Nov 3, 2016 at 1:06
  • @PeteL.Clark I edited the answer. Is that clearer? Nov 3, 2016 at 8:25
  • Much, thanks. I found your new first sentence especially helpful and interesting, as in my discipline (mathematics) the typical structure of an article is introduction, theorem/proof, theorem/proof, theorem/proof...There is also not a standard expectation that an article will discuss the state of the art in a field or contain any kind of systematic literature review. It is more common for an article to do at most as much of that as needed to explain why the results are novel, and in my experience even that can be done in a way which assumes a lot of knowledge on the reader's part. Nov 3, 2016 at 12:41
  • This answer best fits with my situation. My discipline doesn't follow the same paper structure, but the idea of clearly but quickly acknowledging their work and our differences in approach feels both scienfitically useful and ethically just.
    – famulare
    Nov 3, 2016 at 18:13

If they are always citing all of their own papers, a good solution might be to just cite the last one, "and references cited therein". If you cite a review, you're also not citing every publication that's mentioned in it, and you don't have to do that here. This saves you from clogging up your paper with crappy citations, and doesn't give them too many undeserved citations.

You also write that you don't want to make any big statements, but you can just write some facts if you want to make a point in a more subtle way. For example: "some models that were thoroughly calibrated validated are described in [good publications]. Models published by [weak group] show that ...(something else that's also relevant)". You could definitely write somewhere "models in [xxx] not used because code was not provided".

  • 2
    Thank you for the useful comment. That was also a good tactic for me to exclude data in a review. "We included [lots of good publications], but excluded studies where XXX could not be reconstructed from published data [papers coincidentally all from one researcher]."
    – famulare
    Nov 3, 2016 at 18:18

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