Ask DrugMonkey: How do I make those bastards pay for not citing my paper?

Sep 07 2018 Published by under Academics, Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism

This is a highly stylized version of a communication I get in the blog email box now and again:

Dear DrugMonkey,
I love your blog, first time writer, long term reader, etc, etc.

Some bastards have published a paper claiming utterly novel findings and have TOTALLY IGNORED our published paper! How can we make these assholes pay seriously for their crimes?

thanks,
Academic Scientist

...like I said, highly stylized. But it gets at the gist.

I get it.

As we all know, citations of our published papers are hella important for our careers, in the medium to longer term. And citations of our papers can have feed-forward consequences to engender even more citations. When you read a paper you tend to look at the papers it cites. If they are relevant to your work you tend to cite them in a subsequent paper. Maybe often. Maybe they become your go-to methodological or "foundational paper" citation. Do you always do an exhaustive search to make sure that you are citing the first observation*?

So when someone fails to cite you when they should** it costs you something. And particularly for people relatively early in their publishing careers, the cost seems very high. That's because you have few papers and the insult affects a high percentage. The career implications before getting a permanent job, tenure or that first grant may seem to be extremely pointed.

I understand the anger.

I understand the desire to get your deserved credit.

I understand the desire to make those bastards pay for their crimes against you. Sort of.

But you need to sit back and think about what steps you can take, what is the likely upside and what is the likely downside for you.

The bottom line is that you cannot force people to cite you in academic work. You can't force*** them to decide your work is most relevant or deserving of recognition in their own papers. You can't.

The high water mark of direct action is going to be getting a Letter to Editor type of thing published. In which you say "waaah, they should have cited us" or "they claimed priority but we published some thing vaguely similar before". Maybe, I guess, you might get an erratum or correction from the authors or the editors. If the field at large notices (and they mostly won't) they just roll their eyes at the authors. Maybe, just maybe, it results in one or two extra citations of your prior work. Maybe.

Again, I feel you. My work has gone uncited numerous times when it should** have been. This has a material effect on my h-index. My h-index has, at times, come into play in a very direct way in the furtherance of my career and indeed my salary, benefits, retirement, etc. Citations are potentially that important.

I. Get. It.

I also understand that we all can spin this same sort of yarn. And in a lot of cases, someone else in our field can "prove" that we screwed them by not citing their papers when we should** have. It's a normal and relatively impersonal situation in many cases. In the case of intentional bad actors, or people who feel compelled by career pressures to act badly, there is not much we can do about it.

Personally I try to take the medium road and the high road.

The medium road is the sort of semi-defensible record correcting you can take in your own papers. "As we first showed in...". "Doe et al confirmed/replicated our prior finding...". You can also do this any time you are presenting your work orally, from the platform or at poster sessions. In the latter, you just need to be careful about how much of this you do and how hard of a downbeat you put behind it. Don't look like a whiny baby, is my advice.

The high road is to make sure to minimize citation offense in your own publications. Like it or not, we have a priority convention. So cite the first paper, eh? What could this possibly cost you? This leaves you plenty of room to cite 1) your own vaguely related work and 2) whatever are the best citations for the point, regardless of priority, JIF or other convention. The high road also suggests you should cite those folks who you feel have not cited you the way that you deserve. Try to take pleasure in your high-minded scholarly approach. It can be enough.

__
*the citation of pre-prints is going to be an extra fun issue with respect to proper priority citation

**"should". Even the convention to cite the first paper to observe something relevant to your reason for citing is just an arbitrary convention.

***nope, not even in peer review. You can keep saying "reject" but that paper is eventually going to get in somewhere without citing you if the authors really don't want to do so.

17 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    "Do you always do an exhaustive search to make sure that you are citing the first observation*? "

    yes. yes I do. It's amazing sometimes how far you need to go back to find the "first". We're supposed to be academic scholars, dammit. It's understandable, though, given the volume of work being produced, how some important stuff can be missed. I'm disappointed when I see that my own stuff has been overlooked, but let it go. It doesn't always happen, so I have that to go on.

    But I do NOT cite non-peer-reviewed pre-prints. Sorry. I feel like these are merely advertisements that authors get their friends to spread around on social media. Some of the manuscripts I've checked seem ok, some are nightmarish awful.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Am I the only person who actually tries to get people to cite *other* people's papers if they are the actual relevant reference? I mean, I'm flattered if people cite my reviews, but really, that's not the correct citation in most cases.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    JB- no, you are not the only one.

  • TheGrinch says:

    I guess the more useful question should be in the first place - how do i make them cite my paper?

  • riffraff says:

    I am curious whether you think it's more or less... worth bothering about... if you 100% know that the person is aware of the details of the work they are not citing? Like because they approached you to get the skinny about the study they then go on not to cite (presumably because it makes their shit seem newer/cleverer than they know it to be).

    I don't really understand how someone has the gall to try this kind of thing but I am 1000% riffraff so what do I know.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    Am I the only person who actually tries to get people to cite *other* people's papers if they are the actual relevant reference?

    This is why playing "guess the reviewer" is dumb. I frequently suggest that the authors provide context for this and that using papers that almost never my own.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    But I do NOT cite non-peer-reviewed pre-prints. Sorry. I feel like these are merely advertisements that authors get their friends to spread around on social media. Some of the manuscripts I've checked seem ok, some are nightmarish awful.

    I've cited preprints in manuscripts, but I would not suggest to a reviewer that they should cite a preprint (though I may point it out as something of interest that they may wish to discuss). I'll only cite something if I think that the conclusions are well justified. Either a preprint or a peer-reviewed paper has to withstand my scrutiny. There are certainly *flawed* papers that I either will not cite, or will only cite to address a *controversy* in the field.

  • Ola says:

    One place it's important to correct this behavior is on the Contributions to Science section of the NIH biosketch. "We were the first to show..." can be useful in letting reviewers know the priority of your work.

    Twitter also - I may have once or twice used the ROLLEYES emoji when tweeting about a new paper and its lack of citation of my own prior work.

    The other passive-aggressive thing I've done is just to directly email the author and "congratulate" them on their new paper, attaching a copy of my own paper that they may find interesting/relevant. On the few occasions I've heard back, it's usually some BS excuse about only being allowed a limited number of references because of course glamor mag.

  • drugmonkey says:

    how do i make them cite my paper?

    You can't. You can't force anyone to cite you. Move on.

    I don't really understand how someone has the gall to try this kind of thing

    I just don't understand why this seems to be a good thing to do, gall or not. What goes around comes around.

    Either a preprint or a peer-reviewed paper has to withstand my scrutiny.

    Which is why it is dumb to have a rule against preprints and for anything that is peer reviewed. If there is some relevant observation out there that is visible to most and relevant to the issue at hand....

    The other passive-aggressive thing I've done is just to directly email the author and "congratulate" them on their new paper, attaching a copy of my own paper that they may find interesting/relevant.

    really? that seems.....whiny.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Why is this whiny? I've never done it, but I certainly have considered it.

    I hate when responding to douchery is somehow considered bad form.

  • Grumpy says:

    sounds whiny to me. Seems like I get one or two emails like that after nearly every paper I publish. I don't mind, but can't think of a time when it changed my mind or made me aware of a line of work I didn't know about.

    Ive been lucky enough with the citation game that I stopped worrying about who is citing me a while back.

    But sometimes when I am at a conference where plenary is bigshot in my field they will list off all the important things their friends have done and leave me off the list. Even happened once with a colloquium speaker who I had helped host! That can feel embarrassing. But chances are nobody notices but me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Seems like I get one or two emails like that after nearly every paper I publish

    It might be time to rethink your citation practices.

  • draino says:

    I did Ola's passive-aggressive thing once. I sincerely thanked the author for his exciting work, and tried to make him aware of mine, sincerely. He apologized for not citing it. He was aware, but didn't quite understand how it fit his model - in other words it challenged his model so he chose not to mention it.

    So a year later I published my next paper, which had come to focus on the questions raised by our two parallel lines of work. Of course I cited him, and I proposed a resolution to the apparent contradiction. I emailed him to make sure he saw it. He had seen it and his response was positive. He invited me to speak at an international meeting he was organizing. I had a fun week in Europe and met all kinds of people in my field who I would have never met otherwise.

    Dialog is good.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Dialog is good.

    Absolutely.

    in other words it challenged his model so he chose not to mention it.

    We bear some collective blame for this phenomenon and the closely related 'novelty' reason some authors choose to overlook relevant prior work.

    Authors are in a position where they feel like getting their paper into the journal requires claims of novelty (that might not apply) and a tight discussion that appears to wrap everything up with no loose ends (the complete story fiction fits in here). So prior work that is inconvenient to these goals has to be ignored.

    In peer review I have decided to try to challenge myself to explain to the editor and authors why they need to back off their claims of novelty and why this should in no way be taken as a reason not to accept the paper.

    I also amuse myself with the narrowly qualified claims that authors end up putting in the first or last sentence of the first paragraph of the Discussion. E.g. "This is the first time X has been shown....in female, adolescent, Long-Evans rats evaluated by Armenian peasant technicians in the light of the blood moon."

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    Which is why it is dumb to have a rule against preprints and for anything that is peer reviewed. If there is some relevant observation out there that is visible to most and relevant to the issue at hand....

    I agree, but I also know that there is a large contingency of peeps that believe in the Sanctity of Peer Review and would never cite a preprint. Including some AEs. I have attempted to bring up preprints less forcefully than for peer-reviewed pubs, but your point has made me reconsider that approach.

  • drugmonkey says:

    there is a large contingency of peeps that believe in the Sanctity of Peer Review and would never cite a preprint

    I really think the dominoes are falling on this in the wake of the NIH taking a pro-preprint position. It will take time but they will gradually sneak into citation lists here and there and then become common and then we will wonder what the fuss was about.

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