A reader wonders:
When reviewing a manuscript submitted to a journal, is there any good way to recommend to an author that they add a citation of your own work?
This issue is wrapped up with that of reviewer anonymity, so there are a couple of sub-questions here:
- If you are concerned about anonymity but you really really think your paper(s) should be cited, can you disguise your suggestion (to the author, but not the editor) as being from a disinterested and totally objective observer?
- Even if you don't care about being anonymous, how do you suggest that your paper be cited and not come off as a self-promoting citation-monger (assuming you even care what people think)?
To get the discussion rolling, I have encountered the following cite-me situations just in the past couple of months:
1. I was reviewing a paper that used what I thought was an unnecessarily convoluted approach to a particular topic. What they did was OK.. but if they had used my elegant method (the topic of a paper published in the last few years), the paper would be better.
In this case, I decided not to suggest that they use (and cite!) my work. What they did was not a major flaw of the paper, and I considered the issue in question to be more one of style and clarity. Of course, style and particularly clarity are important for papers, but the problem was not so grave in this case that I felt compelled to suggest that they cite my paper. I mentioned only that Method A was unnecessarily complex (with some brief elaboration of why), but left it to the authors (and editor) to agree or disagree with that, and find a different method if they chose (mine or someone else's).
2. In my role as editor of another journal, I was handling a manuscript on a topic on which there are very few published articles, but one of those few published articles happens to be from my research group. The manuscript under review did not cite our paper, and in fact didn't even cite any of the other recent papers on this topic, but instead cited only some 20+ year old, tangentially-related studies. Hooray for not forgetting about old papers, but why ignore highly relevant work published in the last 5 years?
Even trickier than making a cite-me comment in a review is making this comment as an editor. Reviewers suggest; editors decide, so we have to be very careful. I think if the author had cited some of the other recent studies but just not our paper, I would have let it go and merely been a bit puzzled as to why an obvious and relevant paper was not cited. As it was, I thought the lack of any citations of the most relevant literature severely undermined the paper, particularly in the introduction and discussion. Without being too heavy-handed (I think/hope), I suggested that the author consider the literature on Topic X a bit more broadly, and gave a few more specific suggestions of topics (but not particular papers) to consider. Even a brief search on a few keywords will lead to my paper and a few others.
3. Also in my role as editor, I handled two recent manuscripts in which two different reviewers took two different approaches to stating that it would be appropriate for an author to cite their papers. Both reviewers were not shy about making their identities known -- in fact, they each considered it central to having their review comments taken seriously by the authors.
One reviewer was very emphatic that the manuscript under review was fatally flawed without citation of his published work. I agreed that it was surprising that his work was not cited, and that the paper would be better for the citations (and the accompanying contextual discussion), but I think "fatal flaw" was an exaggeration. Unfortunately, "fatal flaw" did apply to the data/methods, a situation perhaps indirectly related to the incompleteness of the citations.
The other reviewer very politely and tentatively and circuitously said that although he hated to suggest that his own work be cited, the authors might want to take a look at his 2006 paper and an earlier paper, and they would then see that their statement that no one had ever before proposed Idea Z or used Method Y to do X was in fact not correct. Again, I agreed with the reviewer that a more correct and complete citation of the literature, including these specific papers by the reviewer, was appropriate.
In fact, in most cases that I have seen as editor, I have agreed with the cite-me comments of reviewers. From what I have seen, it is rare for a cite-me review comment to be frivolous and obviously craven. I am sure it happens, but I think it may be more common for there to be other citation lapses, such as:
- authors who cite their own work heavily and perhaps not very relevantly;
- mis-citation of papers (example);
- non-citation of relevant papers (another example).
So now we are back to the original question. If I think that citation of a not-yet-cited paper of mine is useful to the paper under review, I won't stress out (too much) about appearing like a jerk and will politely mention the paper(s) that seem relevant and explain my reasoning. If I care about staying anonymous in the review, I may not bother to mention the missing citation, or -- if I feel strongly about it -- I could mention it only to the editor.
Of course the whole reason why we are discussing what might seem like a trivial issue is the increasing reliance on citation numbers as a measure of scholarly "quality". Numbers like the h-index now regularly appear in tenure and promotion files and letters of recommendation. If a paper that could/should be cited (but is not) in a paper under review is one with citation numbers just below the cut-off for your h-index, it can set off an internal struggle of the sort mentioned in the original question.
If you have asked yourself this same question whilst reviewing a manuscript, what did you do?