Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Do We Need A Self-Citation Index? - The Scholarly Kitchen


Everyone cites themselves. It is normal, acceptable academic
behavior for anyone who has published more than one paper, a way of
building upon one’s prior work and the work of one’s colleagues.

So why is self-citation getting such a bad rap these days?

data funnel

In a recently published paper appearing in the journal, Publications,
Justin Flatt and others argue for the creation of a self-citation index
for measuring and reporting the extent of author self-citation.

Modeled after the h-index,
a single metric that combines author productivity and citation
performance, the s-index would calculate author self-citation scores.

Given the extent that citation metrics play in the evaluation of
individuals for grants, promotion, and tenure, Flatt worries that
self-citation is causing unintended damage to the course of scientific
research and discovery. Moreover, the benefits appear to accrue to those
who abuse the citation record, further exacerbating gender and status

Flatt’s socioeconomic pronouncements on the damage done by self-citation relies heavily on the findings of a single bibliometric study of Norwegian scientists,
which itself, may suffer from confounding effects, that is, confusing
causes and effects. Still, we can all probably think of authors who go
to extremes to promote their own papers, whether they are relevant to
the manuscript or not.

The debate over counting self-citations is almost as old as citation
counting itself. Here, in 1979, Eugene Garfield, creator of the first
Science Citation Index responds to the criticisms of counting self-citations:

The question of the validity of self-citation is a
simpler one. Theoretically, self-citations are a way of manipulating
citation rates. On the other hand, the practice of citing oneself is
also both common and reasonable […] Since scientists tend to build on
their own work, and the work of collaborators, a high self-citation
count, more often than not, indicates nothing more ominous than a narrow
This does not bode well for an index intentionally created for
uncovering bad behavior. Given multiple intentions for self-citation,
how does one interpret a high citation score? It is simply not possible
to distinguish a prolific author in a specialized field from a shameless

Writing for Open and Shut,
Richard Poynder presses Flatt on defining self-citation and how such a
metric can flag inappropriate behavior. Flatt concedes that there is no
scientific agreement. “I think we should come together as a community to
try and reach a consensus,” he responds. Nevertheless, Flatt argues
that making self-citation data more transparent would allow each
discipline to debate the conditions and parameters of acceptability.

This hand-waving toward transparency as a salve that will soothe all conflicts, biases, and inequalities in science
has become routine. Given that a self-citation index could cause
unintended harm due to its interpretive ambiguity, it behooves Flatt to
explain exactly how the s-index would curb inappropriate self-citation.

Many citation indexes currently allow users to calculation h-index
scores for individual authors. It is puzzling that Flatt argues for a
separate s-index over the option to calculate an h-score without self-citation. The Journal Citation Report calculates Journal Impact Factors without self-citation. (It does not calculate a Self-Citation Journal Impact Factor.)

What the world needs now is more data curation.
To me, the s-index is a symptom of a larger, more insidious problem
of vanity journals, which predate the recent explosive growth of open
access predatory journals. Even 40 years ago, Garfield envisioned how such gaming could be attempted, detected, and defeated.
Substitute “obscure journals” in the following quote with “vanity” or
“predatory” and the argument could easily have been written today.

[I]t is quite difficult to use self-citation to inflate a
citation count without being rather obvious about it. A person
attempting to do this would have to publish very frequently to make any
difference. Given the refereeing system that controls the quality of the
scientific literature in the better known journals, the high
publication count could be achieved only if the person had a lot to say
that was at least marginally significant. Otherwise, the person would be
forced into publishing in obscure journals. The combination of a long
bibliography of papers published in obscure journals and an abnormally
high self-citation count would make the intent so obvious that the
technique would be self-defeating.
Like Flatt, Garfield argues that transparency working in concert with
disciplinary norms would dissuade this type of citation gaming.
However, this line of thinking presupposes that anything an author
writes would be indexed, its references collected, counted, and used to
compute a researcher’s citation score. Under this model, the
responsibility for digging, sifting, and filtering the raw data that
forms the basis of an author’s citation score is left entirely to the
user. It’s hard to believe that a fully-transparent let-the-user-beware
model is going to be of any help to anyone.

A fully transparent data model won’t dissuade citation gaming, it
will only enable it. What the world needs now is not more transparency,
but more curation.

Don’t get me wrong, there is good intention behind the creation of
the s-index. My concern is that it won’t solve the abuse of
self-citation, largely because the problem is ill-defined, contextual,
discipline-dependent, and may do harm to the reputation of some authors.
An s-index also does nothing to detect citation coercion or citation
cartels, well documented behaviors that have the potential to create
much more damage than self-citation (see here, here, here, here, and here).

The simplest solution to a perceived problem of authors gaming their h-index is for indexes to calculate an h-index with and without self-citation. If the two numbers are far apart, it may indicate that something is amiss.

The ultimate solution, however, does not come from the creation of
new metrics, but from more rigorous curation of what gets indexed and
included in the citation dataset. When abuse is uncovered, transparency
is simply not enough. Indexes must be able to sanction and suppress
offending journals. Not only would rigorous curation help to preserve
the quality of the citation data, but maintain trust in the validity of
the citation metrics. Metrics are only as valid as the data behind them.

Index curation requires human intervention, which is vastly more
costly than running a computer algorithm, but immensely more valuable.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a
publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of
citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in
science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive
experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life
View All Posts by Phil Davis


2 Thoughts on "Do We Need A Self-Citation Index?"

If citations to a study are taken as a proxy of
the uptake or impact of the study on the scientific community, then
wouldn’t it be safe to just disregard self-citations when this measure
is used for the evaluation of individuals? Self-citations are natural
consequence of an author’s study building on his/her previous work,
there is no doubt about that, but they don’t indicate impact in that
sense. I cannot impact myself, in my opinion. Or rather, I am impacting
myself all the time, but we already know that and therefore it’s not
interesting for evaluation either. I should say that evaluation should
be concerned with how and to what degree someone’s work impacts others.

There are, however, some use cases that I wouldn’t be so sure how to
categorize, for example when authors A and B publish an article X, and
then authors B and C publish another article Y, that cites X. Should
that be considered a self-citation from the point of view of A? We might
consider the absolute choice, that a citation is a self-citation when
any of the authors in the cited paper is also a coauthor of the citing
paper, or we could choose the author-dependent choice, that a citation
is a self-citation for author A only when author A is also a coauthor of
the citing paper. This is just to say that how we define self-citation
itself can have an influence in the results we get. Probably this has
already been discussed, but I don’t know where.

It is fairly easy to calculate the % of
self-citations in Web of Science by running an author search and then
clicking on ‘Create Citation Report’. The CCR provides ‘total
publications’, h-index, … and ‘sum of times cited’ & ‘citing
articles’ … each also ‘without self citations’. Calclulating the % of
self-citing articles, for a small sample of established Caltech authors,
gives values from 1.2% to 2.7%. Given the inherent problems with
comparing h-index values, might this be a better measure?

Do We Need A Self-Citation Index? - The Scholarly Kitchen

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