Female academics and professors are worried that they are being left behind by their male colleagues, not in funding, but in self-citations. Their main concern is that men are more likely to self-cite than women and that leads to a significant disadvantage for women trying to get jobs as tenured professors. The higher education newspaper, The Chronicle, published an article by Robin Wilson that details the struggle of female academics and self-citation. Self-citation occurs when professors cite their own previous work in an academic paper or study.
The study, conducted by University of Washington researchers, found that men are 56% more likely to self-cite than their female colleagues. And, the authors noted that in the past decade, it has grown to 64% and may have contributed to the gap between women and men in the academic workplace.
The article quoted a sociology professor at Stanford, Shelley Correll, who is working with the study’s authors and said, “If men are self-citing at a higher rate, and we are using those data to decide things like who to hire, then men are gaining an advantage.” Barbara Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, recalled that on one trip to promote her research, “the women in the room spoke first, saying there was something dirty and underhanded about citing your own work, that it seemed somehow wrong.”
Some faculty members such as Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and director of their Center for WorkLife Law, believe that women should not adopt the self-citing habits and attitudes of their male colleagues. She said that there is inevitable pushback when women self-cite as much as men. Williams adopted this aggressive self-citation approach earlier in her career and said:
“I almost immediately realized the same rules didn’t apply to me. Self-promotion is part of the tightrope of being too aggressive, and when women promote themselves they almost always get pushback from both other women and from men.”
Cassidy Sugimoto, an assistant professor of informatics and computing at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, found that women usually work on broad topics with small groups of researchers while men specialize and write several papers on a narrow topic in their field.
She also found that women publish less than men.
But, an Ohio State professor of higher education, Terrell Strayhorn, argued that women and minorities need to self-cite to become well-known. Strayhorn said, “But right now the canon is still predominantly white and male. One way to break that down is to make sure we’re citing more recent scholars, and that means citing ourselves.”
One professor worried that it has become too easy to use citation numbers to apply for jobs at colleges, as if citations are a measure of one’s scholarship or research aptitude. Douglas Arnold, a math professor at Minnesota-Twin Cities, is one of the most cited researchers worldwide and is in the top 250 most-cited professors. He said:
“Citations are used as a superficial way to judge how good somebody is. It is all part of the trend to degrade the importance of expert opinion. It used to be you could read the paper and have a picture of what was valuable. Now it’s much easier to just look at the citation numbers.”
According to The Chronicle, he only self-cites 1.6% of the time.
A math professor at Northwestern University, Bryna Kra, said that “Citations are a touchy subject.” She admitted, “I’ve received poison e-mail messages from people saying I’m trying to harm them by not citing them, but their work either didn’t fit in my analysis or I’d never heard of it.” Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, once worried that a tenure candidate had too few citations with 11. She was called a “bean counter” by her colleagues and the candidate was approved for tenure.
The study found that out of 1.6 million papers, there are about 40 million citations. Out of those 40 million citations, one million were self-citations. Men represented 78.1% of the authors and women made up the remaining 21.9%. The authors said that men “are responsible for 84.8 percent of self-citations” and women “just 15.2 percent of the self-citations.” They concluded that men self-cite 56 times more than their female colleagues.
The main differences in citations were due to the gap of men and women in certain academic fields like math or sociology. For example, men were 84% more likely to self-cite in math while women were 43% more likely to self-cite in sociology. Math professors defend the gap, and as The Chroncle observed, “Articles often aren’t cited for 10 to 20 years after they’re written.”
Male academics defended their self-citations because they mostly founded their research field. David Collum, the chair of the chemistry and chemical biology department at Cornell, is a leading researcher on the organic chemistry of lithium. The Chronicle said that Collum “basically founded research on the subject 30 years ago.” In his own words, he defended his self-citations because he was one of the first researchers to publish on the topic. He said, “Look, I try to cite accurately, but I have published every single paper on some topics. Who else should I cite?” J. Fraser Stoddart, a chemistry professor at Northwestern, admitted, “We have no option but to cite our own previous work.”
That may make sense for a scientist in the lab but what excuse do historians, English professors and so-called “social scientists”—male or female—have for not citing primary sources? Moreover, why should they consider themselves primary sources?