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Discrimination in the citations that scientists use

December 22, 2009
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid - Oficina de Información Científica
Science does not have to be altruistic. In fact, most of the time it is egotistic, according to a study by researchers in Spain that analyzes the discrimination that exists in citations of scientific articles in articles where researchers publish their results.

Why some scientists choose a given citation and not others to include in the references of their scientific writings is an issue which is not completely resolved, according to what could be determined in a study carried out by María del Mar Camacho Miñano and Manuel Núñez Níckel, of the Universidad Complutense of Madrid and the UC3M, respectively, published in the Journal of the American Society for Information, Science and Technology.

Citations in science are important as a mechanism to follow the evolution of science and because they are employed as an indicator as to the importance of scientists and institutions: the higher the number of citations of an article, the greater is its recognition. This measure of success implies increased sources of funding, recognition, salaries, etc.

According to Camacho Miñano and Núñez Nickel, the problem arises when the authors, instead of altruistically choosing original sources which facilitate the ideas on which their reasoning is constructed, cite because of spurious interests, attempting to increase the possibility of successfully publishing in the scientific journals.

"In this way, prejudices arise, and what is worse, so does the discrimination suffered by scientists who are not cited," explains the UC3M Full Professor of Financial Economics and Accounting, Manuel Núñez Nickel.

Such discrimination can be summarized in three fundamental aspects: personal characteristics of the author (for example, sex, race, where doctorate was obtained, current or previous affiliation, if the author forms part of the editorial staff of some journal, etc.); characteristics of the article (methodology utilized, number of pages, if it is a bibliographic recompilation, etc.); and finally, type or nature of the journal (journals with a higher degree of impact tend to be cited).

With the systems of control that exist at present (double-blind review) it is difficult to control this type of behaviour, according to the authors of this study. Moreover, the reviewers and editors could be accentuating this behavior which they criticize by advising them to cite journals with a certain degree of impact or certain authors. For example, one journal advises citing the journal where the article will be published. The explanation of the editors is: If our journal is not interesting to cite, why do they want to publish in it? If this editor did not wish to alter the essence of the citation, his reasoning should have been: If you give us a quality research study, we are interested in whatever you do, and if we consider that it is not of good quality, we reject it.

A possible solution

Notwithstanding, the researchers point out a partial solution to this problem: the editor of the journal should give clear guidelines for the reviewers to follow, so that the moment that they are aware that this type of discrimination exists, they eradicate it at the grass roots level. "At a personal level, this is extremely difficult, since an editor is usually specialized in only one of the areas of the scientific field, not in all of them. But nowadays, with the level of knowledge available, if the editors sent the correct message, penalizing those reviewers who "advise certain citations or self-impose certain journal discipline, there would be a marked improvement in the correct direction."

This study's main contribution, ordering such diverse ideas that exist in such a broad range of literature, is to put in place the different steps in selecting citations. In this sense, "an author cannot permit herself to not know the most relevant sources if she wishes to have a certain trustworthiness within her area," Nuñez Nickel explained. . However, when deciding which authors to cite, if various articles cover the same needs, the author may be inclined for those which are similar to her reviewers of certain journals, full professors from institutions which interest her, etc. "This could be one of the reasons why "quality" schools appear as opposed to those which offer original ideas," he remarked..

The researchers were able to determine, according to the results, that there always is "amoral" behavior which cannot be controlled when citing authors. "Science is not altruistic, but in the majority of cases, it is egotistical," states Professor Núñez Níckel. "If these hypotheses are true, Science could degenerate or simply stagnate without actually advancing in certain areas." he added. The idea of carrying out this research arose precisely because of the difficulty encountered in the field of study to value the researchers' real effort and the results they obtained, at the hour of remuneration, promotion, obtaining funding, etc. "We carried out this research," he pointed out, "for purely selfish reasons in an attempt to establish guidelines regarding assessment within the Accounting area of the Business Economics Department at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid."

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Universidad Carlos III de Madrid - Oficina de Información Científica. "Discrimination in the citations that scientists use." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 December 2009. <>.
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