Do academics collectively scratch each others’ backs, citing researchers who are liberal in citing others?  Gregory Webster from the University of Florida dug through the reference lists from 50,000 articles published in Science, and found evidence that they do.  Articles that cited lots of other articles tended to be better-cited than articles with slender reference lists.  A sign of well-functioning paradigmatic science, or evidence of a shadowy academic mutual-backscratching club?  The jury’s still out (though Webster does a nice job of disassembling the most intuitive interpretation, i.e., that it was being driven by review articles.  Turns out it’s not.  Huh.)

What I found particularly interesting was the change in this relationship over time.  In Ye Olden Days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and statistics were calculated with an abacus, your article in Science could cite everyone and their dog, and it wouldn’t change how many times you would get cited.

But by the end of the twentieth century, there is a robust association between your citing-ness and everyone else’s willingness to cite you.  Expansive reference lists citing everyone in the field is, for some reason, associated with being well-cited yourself.  The chart above details how the association between citing-ness and cited-ness grew over the course of the last century.

Webster doesn’t yet have data for the 2000-2010 period, but I’ll make two speculative guesses about what is likely to change:

1)  The correlation between citing others and being cited will increase in the 2000s, and

2)  The correlation will be stronger in smaller specialist journals than in mondo-gargantuan journals like Science (the reverse is currently true, according to Webster’s analysis).

Here’s why:

Scholars are lazy.  Or, to use a more flattering term, we’re cognitive misers.  We use search tools like Web of Science and Google Scholar to conduct our literature reviews and figure out who’s done what.  And when you use either of those tools, any paper you turn up includes links to other papers that have cited it (in Google, there’s a ‘cited by’ link right under the result; in Web of Science, the list of papers shows right on the sidebar.)

In the Age of Search, liberal use of citations suddenly adds you to the WOS sidebars and Google Scholar cited-by pages, which makes your article more likely to be found, read, and cited.  So, if you want to get your work read and cited and avoid the dusty scrapheap of uncited science, cite early and cite often.  That’s why I think the reference-citation link will grow stronger in the 2000s and beyond.

The reason I think this association will be stronger for smaller journals is based on the same logic.  Your masterful article on the spawning habits of the Atlantic Cod is unlikely to be overlooked if it’s in Science or Nature.  In fact, most people conducting a literature search will be carefully check in each of their field’s top journals for work on their topic of choice.  But if your towering analysis of cod-spawning was published in some third-tier, specialist journal — say, the Canadian Technical Journal of Fisheries Management — it’s most likely to be discovered by showing up in Google’s cited-by list, or popping up on a Web of Science sidebar.  And the chances of appearing in those lists, as I described earlier, hinges on being a generous citer of other people’s work.

In other words, my prediction is that the Citation Problem Of The Future… will basically be academic linkspam.