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Men have a greater tendency to cite themselves, study says

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The number of citations a scientist’s work receives plays an important role in determining her or his standing in the academic world. Unpublished research presented on 24 August at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago, Illinois, suggests that men are substantially more likely than women to cite their own prior work in their writings. This greater propensity to blow one’s own horn may have a consequential impact on scholarly careers, the study’s authors argue.

“[T]he average man self-cites 56% more often than … the average woman,” write Molly King, a sociology Ph.D. student at  Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and co-authors in Men set their own cites high: Gender and self-citation across fields and over time, the draft paper presented at the meeting. The observed difference is likely to have a snowball effect, as self-citation “both directly and indirectly increas[es] an author’s citation counts,” the authors continue. Indeed, according to previous work by other researchers, “[e]ach additional self-citation yields an additional three citations (though not necessarily to the same [self-cited] paper) from other scholars over” the next 5 years, they note.

Since today’s highly competitive academic scene hardly encourages male researchers to become more modest about their own publications, it may behoove female researchers to draw more attention to their work by citing themselves more.

The “gender differences in [self-citation] patterns may shed light on persisting gender discrepancies in faculty hiring and promotion,” the authors argue. Other researchers have thus shown that women-authored papers get fewer citations overall than those by men, “even [when] controlling for tenure status, institution, and journal,” and men’s and women’s differing rates of citing themselves “is likely … a driver” of the overall citation gap, they note. And because citation counts have a “direct, positive, and significant effect on [an academic’s] salary” and hiring and promotion chances, the discrepancy between the genders is “not inconsequential.”

Using the JSTOR digital libraries of academic papers, the study examined 1.6 million articles published since 1950 in 24 broad fields. It determined each author’s gender using U.S. Social Security Administration data on first names, excluding names that are ambiguous as to gender and authors who only use initials. Because of this, the study may have disproportionately excluded women, who are likelier than men to use initials and have first names given to both males and females, the authors note. The process produced 448,389 mentions of female authors and 1,596,125 males. 

The authors looked not only at the current trends in self-citation but also at how they evolved over time, finding large changes over the past decades. In the 1950s, the ratio of men’s to women’s self-citation was 1.27, but then it “rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, flattening out after about 1980. … Since 1990, the ratio of men’s to women’s self-citation is 1.708.” Strikingly, this pronounced rise in men’s likelihood to cite their own work coincided with the entrance of large numbers of women into the professoriate. 

Could the “increasing movement of women into what had previously been almost exclusively ‘men’s jobs’ [have] led some men to cite their own work more as a way of enhancing their scholarly reputation in the face of growing competition from women[?]” the authors ask. Though they lack evidence to prove this connection, they do cite studies that support the possibility. What’s more, although their “data cannot reveal the mechanisms behind this temporal trend,” the authors view the gender difference in self-citation as not only “statistically significant” but also “socially important.”

The average over time also masks significant differences by field. Women were least likely to cite themselves in history, classical studies, international political science, mathematics, and general anthropology—but most likely to do so in U.S. domestic political science, cell and molecular biology, sociology, radiation damage, and ecology. In every field, however, men were still likelier than women to cite themselves. The ratio of men’s to women’s self-citation was highest in probability and statistics, mathematics, cell and molecular biology, international political science, and economics.

Since today’s highly competitive academic scene hardly encourages male researchers to become more modest about their own publications, it may behoove female researchers to draw more attention to their work by citing themselves more. More significantly, the authors suggest, “[w]hen interpreting the impact metrics of scholars' work, university hiring and tenure committees should be aware” of the gender difference in self-citation. Beyond that, metrics “for scientific impact that exclude self-citation … could make evaluation processes less gender-biased and improve equity in the academic community.”

You can find a draft version of the study here.