“New study finds that men are often their own favorite experts on any given subject,” ran the headline to a Washington Post Wonkblog entry published on Monday. The post’s art was a deeply irritating stock photo of a profoundly self-satisfied white guy in a button-down. As of Tuesday midday, the post was second on the Post’s most-read list. The headline and art were well-calibrated to provoke a certain response from Twitter, and Twitter responded by doing its best to make the subtext text: “Mansplaining mansplained”; “#Mansplaining”; “When mansplaining becomes self-splaining.”
When it comes to mansplaining, I’m certainly a believer. But I don’t think this study on self-citation, published as a working paper and authored by a group of five academics from Stanford, NYU, and the University of Washington (led by Stanford’s Molly M. King), is quite the right evidence to use in proving its existence. The study, which looked at 1.5 million papers in academic publishing hub JSTOR, published between 1779 and 2011, found that men self-cited 56 percent more often than women (when looking at the full dataset). In the last two decades, men self-cited 70 percent more often. “Despite increased representation of women in academia,” the authors write, “this gender gap in self-citation rates has remained stable over the last 50 years.” Given the importance of citation rates to academic careers, this matters.
First question: Is self-citation bad, or wrong? Not necessarily. The authors themselves write: “We do not want to demonize the practice of self-citation.” Norms vary widely across discipline; self-citation is much more common in the natural sciences. (In this paper, for example, the authors found that a low 5.6 percent of citations in classics articles were self-citations; for molecular biology, the most self-citing of the disciplines they surveyed, the number shoots up to 17.6.) In some cases, self-citation makes sense. Here’s a position put forth by a commenter on the blog Philosophers’ Cocoon: “If you have multiple papers that fit together, such that one addresses objections another sets aside, or develops issues that another raises without focusing on, it’s helpful to readers to point them to that.” (Philosophy has a 10.7 percent self-citation rate, according to King et. al.)
I was always taught to apply the same standards to self-citation that you would apply to citing any other author: Cite where it would help your reader find out more about a topic or argument you’re glossing in service of space, and to give credit to the person who did that work. If you’re the one who wrote the article, chapter, or book that fills the gap, then self-cite. (For the record, I self-cited—twice—in my forthcoming book.) Extraneous or unnecessary self-citations certainly do happen—but they’re not the only kind of self-citation out there.
Second: If women cite less often, why is that? Writing in Nature, Dalmeet Singh Chawla observes that King and her co-authors weren’t able to control for an author’s overall productivity, in measuring self-citation rates. So it’s hard to tell how much of the self-citation gap—which seems, intuitively, to be simply a matter of male comfort with self-promotion—could also be attributable to gendered differences in productivity.
King and her co-authors, acknowledging this, propose a number of alternative mechanisms that could be responsible for the gap. In some fields, they observe, authors are more likely to write papers in single-gendered groups; this puts women in STEM disciplines, where they are in the minority, at a productivity disadvantage. In other disciplines, like sociology and linguistics, men specialize more than women; if you are producing highly specialized work, you may feel justified in self-citing more often. Women, the authors write, “tend to be tenured in less prestigious jobs with heavier teaching responsibilities” that leave them with less space to write papers to self-cite. And “attrition out of the academic pipeline” in the early phases of an academic career might mean that “women have fewer papers to self-cite and fewer later opportunities to do so.” (The authors observe, however, that increasing numbers of women in senior positions over the past few decades hasn’t narrowed the self-citation gap—a suggestive, but inconclusive, point.)
So the question of self-citation, which at headline level seems to be simply about the male ego, is really about a complicated mess of structural factors that may or may not have contributed to the results this study has found. Why don’t women and men collaborate more? Why don’t women tend to specialize? Why are women stuck in jobs that constrain their research productivity? That constellation of questions makes for a much worse tweet, but it’s much more interesting to consider.