What do citations really mean?

Several recent papers and/or blog posts have highlighted the social nature of citation practices, challenging the assumption that citation counts stand as impartial measures of the quality and impact of a piece of scholarly work:

  1. In Position matters Philip Davis summarizes Positional Effects on Citation and Readership in arXiv , in which the authors find that articles listed at the top of arXiv’s daily publication announcements were cited more frequently than articles listed lower. The authors go on to note:

    we’ve documented here that accidental forms of visibility can drive early readership, with consequent early citation potentially initiating a feedback loop to more readership and citation, ultimately leaving measurable and significant traces in the citation record.

  2. Although Henry at Crooked Timber rather convincingly argues that Charles Rowley’s article (behind paywall), ‘The curious citation practices of Avner Greif: Janet Landa comes to grief’; is “one of the sorriest hack-jobs that I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in an academic journal”; the Rowley article does highlight the general issue of the very real influence that individual citation choices can have. Scholarly careers can be made or broken by citation (or lack thereof) in a subsequently influential piece of scholarship. Once cited in one influential paper, one’s work is more likely to become part of the regularly cited literature on a topic, as subsequent scholars cite the same works.
  3. Finally, Steven Greenberg’s How citation distortions create unfounded authority: analysis of a citation network highlights the social side of citations by demonstrating how “the persuasive use of citation–bias, amplification, and invention–can be used to establish unfounded scientific claims as fact.”

Clearly lots of factors affect when, where, why, by whom and how often a given scholarly work is cited. It seems like it would be good for us all to remember not to place undue weight on either individual citations or citation patterns; and not to blindly rely on citation count as an unbiased, objective measure of quality.

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