Vanity and conceit: the perils of self-citation

All scholars do it, but some are simply blowing their own trumpet, says Pat Thomson

August 30, 2015
ego, vanity, pride

The other day I got a book in the mail. Not that unusual. This was one that I’d written a chapter in and it was my complimentary copy.

Before I stuck it on the shelf I thought I’d take a bit of a look at the contents. What had other people written? I flicked through and, as happens when you’re just scanning bits and pieces, one end-of-chapter set of references leapt out at me.

I’m not going to name the book, its editors or indeed its publisher – although I really would like to name and shame the author of the particular end-of-chapter references that struck me. Why? Well, every single text cited was by the chapter author. All of them. Not one other person was cited. Not one. Just the author.

What can we conclude from this? That the author is the only person that has addressed this particular issue? Not the case. So it must be that either:
(1) the author doesn’t know what anyone else has written on the topic, or
(2) they don’t rate what anyone else has done, or
(3) they are trying to up their own citations.

Any of these three options looks like pretty miserable scholarly practice.

I, me, myself… no-one else has anything worth saying about this topic but me. The scholarly circle of me. Standing on the shoulders of giants? I am the giant, O tiny ones. The rest of you are so insignificant I cannot even see you, let alone read you. Cogito ego sum.

Now, I’m not saying that an academic writer shouldn’t cite their own stuff. We all do, and it’s usually sensible to do so. In the case in point, all of the contributors had been asked to write for the book on the basis of having an international track record in the field. So all of us, bar this one person – I then checked all the other ends of chapters – had cited something of our own. But we hadn’t made out we were solo players, disconnected from everyone else, soliloquising on the scholarly stage. No, the rest of us had put our work in conversation with the field.

You do often need to show that what you’re writing about now is part of your ongoing agenda – self-citation demonstrates that you’ve built up, over several texts and projects, a set of understandings, arguments and results. No matter who you are, you don’t have to pretend that you’re a complete novice in an area, unless you actually are. Some self-citation is generally expected.

But there’s a line between this and simply blowing your own trumpet rather immodestly. And it’s not that fine a line between modesty and excess.

It’s not uncommon to see people get the balance a bit wrong. For instance, a relatively new researcher might offer themselves as a solo citation in relation to rather well-trodden territory, rather than co-locating themselves with key texts and contributions. That’s not fatal and a referee will usually pick this up.

There always is a “just right” balance between inappropriate self-centred-ness and situating yourself and your work in the field. The trouble is that the line-not-to-cross is often not explicit. And it varies between disciplines – so you do need to suss it out. And see this recent THE article, on someone alleged to have overstepped the self-citation bounds, suggesting that more people are now looking to see what the balance actually is. Then check out Ken Hyland’s paper on the difficulties of judging perfectly reasonable self-citing practices by conventional metric means. You might also want to keep track of the debates about whether self-citations should count.

In the case of the particular chapter that offended me, it wasn’t too hard to see that the writer just got it really wrong. So wrong. Off over on the far-side of the me-us continuum. Almost beyond comprehension.

I notice that the urban dictionary describes this kind of me, me, me behaviour as pathological – an ego-maniac, it suggests, is someone whose ego exceeds both their intelligence and their capacity to see beyond their own personal interests. The dictionary kindly suggests some related terms – jackass, loser and douchebag. It’s worth remembering those when considering how much to self-cite.

I’ll certainly have the words jackass, loser and douchebag in my mind when I next bump into the self-referencer at a conference. And I’m sure I won’t be the only writer in the book who noticed the bibliographic display of vanity and conceit.

Pat Thomson is professor of education in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. This post originally appeared on her blog

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