• Open Access

The art and science of self-citations


Self-citation is the use of your previous work to support your current work. The previous work should provide the foundation of the supporting argument to justify your current work, and the citation should show that your previous work explicitly underpins your current work. This is the ‘science’ of self-citation.

On face value, almost everything we publish forms a foundation of what we do next and therefore could be cited. However, in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, and other similar journals, more than 50% of the articles we publish have zero citations after two years. In other words, more than half the articles are never cited within a reasonable period of time. Is it possible that even the authors do not feel their paper is worth citing or is it just that we move on and do not want to self-promote our own work?

Self-citation can reduce redundancy in our work. Redundancy (also called self-plagiarism) occurs when you use ideas from previously published work without correct citation, or worse, copy sections of text from previous papers.1 You can avoid redundancy by citing your previous work, summarising your previous arguments, methods and findings, and referring readers to that paper for details.2 Remember, the copyright agreement for each published paper means that you no longer own the paper and therefore cannot use its content in contravention of that agreement. Sadly, précising is a frequently ignored skill.

The balance between citing your work and others citing your work might be considered an art. In essence, any article submitted to this Journal that describes ongoing research should have at least one citation from the authors themselves as a foundation for the proffered work; we expect that. It is worth noting, that up to one-third of citations in a paper can be self-citations.3

While the citation index factor (impact factor) of the journal is considered important, it is the measure of citations of your work that is critical. If your paper is influencing your own research and that of others, it will be cited, regardless of the journal it is published in. If you are the only author citing your work, this does not reflect well on your efforts. In other words, it is expected that you use your previous work to underpin your new research but you cannot build a career if you are the only one citing your ideas. This journal, along with most other reputable journals, never stipulates that you add additional citations from the journal.

In this time of Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) scores, the number of times that a specific article is cited is a measure of impact of the research and how its authors are measured as academics. So, another important measure for us all, as part of the new determination of academic research quality in Australia, is our personal H index. In some academic institutions, executive Deans or Pro Vice Chancellors (Research) may value your worth based on your H index. The H index4 is a measure that takes into account not only number of papers you have published, but also the number of times each article has been cited. It can be viewed as a composite estimate of the both the quality and impact of your work. Arguably, the H-index provides a good estimate of the overall productivity of an academic. It provides a general comparison of your productivity compared to others, regardless of the level of appointment. Whether the H index is fair and equitable across disciplines, or whether it should be used at all, is no longer a debatable topic in most universities, as grant agencies, grant reviewers, academic employers and even colleagues are now measuring academics based on their H-Index. With the technology of smart phones and iPads, it is possible for anyone to quickly compute your H-Index using tools such as Google Scholar.

We can measure how often articles are downloaded and we know how often they are used as teaching materials and can count that. Published public health research is likely to be used in policy making, although that is hard to measure and is not always possible to demonstrate, unless quotes are used in policy documents or Hansards. For individual researchers, therefore, the key measure becomes the number of times the article is cited in the relevant literature.

Every article that is published in this Journal has gone through a peer-review process and has therefore demonstrated both scientific and discipline validity. But if an article is never cited in the literature, even by one of the authors, what effect can it have on anything? So, cite your own publications, point other researchers to the foundations of your arguments and research, increase your visibility – and thereby the probability that others will cite your work – and raise your H-index. It benefits both you and your institution. There is definitely justification for researchers to cite their own work so that may get picked up by other researchers reading your next manuscripts.