Self-Citation and Anonymous Review


How should you go about preparing an article for anonymous peer-review if you cite yourself in your article? There are a couple of issues here that suggest that mere redaction is not usually enough.

A full professor of philosophy who has published a lot and is associated with a few journals writes in with the following thoughts on the matter:

I believe manuscripts that are submitted for anonymous review should not make obvious references to the author’s own publications even when the details are redacted. In some cases, this already is enough to let the referee know exactly who the author is, which is obviously to be avoided in blind refereeing: “As I have argued in [redacted] there is what we might call a ‘naturalistic fallacy…’”

But, even when that is not so, the explicitly redacted citation indicates to the referee that this author is already published. This is a biasing piece of information, favoring published authors, that should be masked if doing so is not too costly. I don’t think it is too costly.

There are three ways to do so:

  • Cite: Just cite the piece without noting or signaling that it is the author’s (“As G. E. Moore argues in Principia Ethica,…”). This is not always possible, since a paper might want to build on one’s previous work, or one might be citing one’s own work with a frequency that strongly suggests authorship. But often it is perfectly possible.
  • Drop: Just drop those citations, without a trace, from the manuscript for purposes of refereeing, leaving out any signal such as “redacted.” In some cases, granted, this risks looking obtuse, failing to refer to work that a referee knows or might well believe should be cited. But often there is no such problem, and those citations can be easily and silently dropped.
  • Mix: A combination: avoid any reference at all unless this risks looking obtuse, in which case cite one’s own work very sparingly without any signal of authorship, just as if it were being cited by another author.

There are some ways of writing that might resist any of these techniques. But in that case they are not properly prepared for blind review. I suggest that editors return such manuscripts for better preparation rather than permit such an obvious loophole. The proscribed style can be reinstated after the paper is accepted and revised for final form.

Comments welcome.

Rebecca Ward, masking tape installation

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nobody in particular
nobody in particular
3 years ago

I agree with the author. It seems like self-citation is one of the ways that philosophers signal–not just to the referees, but also to journal editors, if the journal is triple-blind–both who they are and also how important they are. I think that senior philosophers have an obligation to help give junior philosophers a fair shot at publishing (some think that senior philosophers shouldn’t publish in peer-reviewed journals at all–I don’t agree with this). I recently asked my partner, who is a full professor with an established reputation, what he does with respect to self-citation, and he apparently does the “As I have argued in (redacted)” thing. Anyone refereeing his papers must know who he is, unless they don’t know anything about the sub-discipline they are refereeing in–either is worrying. I mention this because I don’t think he was doing this for intentionally self-serving reasons, but rather just hadn’t thought carefully about it. So it is good to get the message out that it actually can harm junior people for senior people to do this. Thanks for this post!Report

T
T
Reply to  nobody in particular
3 years ago

One issue I would have with “(redacted)” in this way is that it clearly infers the writer as one who is established, and even in the sincerest of circumstances it will generate a bias toward that work.

Imagine you’re reading such a work and the author redacts five references to their works. For one, if the journal is established, the referee is likely to either know the reference or writing style in that quote. But even aside from that, even merely inferring that you have five previously published works in this topic might bias the referee into thinking this work too is a worthy contribution. After all, five other works were accepted!

Admittedly, I don’t have a good solution; I just see a strong possibility for bias in using redactions.Report

Incredulous
Incredulous
Reply to  T
3 years ago

Is there any evidence that self-citation (in the form of “redacted”) leads more frequently to publication?

I find it hard to believe that self-citation increases the probability a ref will accept it. After all, I’ve reffed, and I could not care less if someone self-cites – it doesn’t impress me. I assume my attitude is not atypical.Report

T
T
Reply to  Incredulous
3 years ago

I find it highly ironic that you and those supporting your comment find it hard to believe that such bias, unconscious or otherwise, exists, given that our profession is one on the front lines of attempting to illuminate bias to those ignorant of it. Though I concede your very apt first point, which is that there’s likely little evidence for this, and tracking it may be exceptionally difficult.Report

Somebody in particular
Somebody in particular
3 years ago

I appreciate the issues the OP is raising here, as I increasingly confront them as an author and always at a sincere loss as to what to do. While I also appreciate the OP’s suggested fixes, I have several concerns.

First, some projects are simply impossible to do adequately without liberally citing and discussing the author’s previous work. An example here is further developing or defending a theory one has published previously. Projects like these are entirely legitimate and may be important to publish.

Second, in cases like these there seems to be no reasonable way for the author to hide their identity. If they adopt the OP’s first suggestion, citing themselves liberally in the third-person, the reviewer can probably be reasonably certain it is the author (this has happened to me with multiple reviewers). On the other hand, if one adopts the OP’s second suggestion (excising all self-references) then the project becomes effectively impossible to get off the ground, as the very motivation for the work in question is to develop or respond to critiques to the author’s previous work. This won’t just make the manuscript seem “obtuse.” It will likely make it seem entirely unmotivated to any reasonable editor or referee.

Finally, even if one or more of the OP’s suggestions were correct, authors have little guidance from journals on what that journal considers appropriate here. Some journals give no direction at all. Others say all self-references should be redacted. Others say they should be in the third-person.

It would be nice if we had some disciplinary-wide norms on these issues. I for one would very appreciative for guidance, as again I want to do right as an author but often feel at a total loss because all the available options seem inadequate.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Somebody in particular
3 years ago

“First, some projects are simply impossible to do adequately without liberally citing and discussing the author’s previous work. An example here is further developing or defending a theory one has published previously. Projects like these are entirely legitimate and may be important to publish.”

If an author has previously published a theory and a further development or defense of that theory is worthy of publication then that development or defense should be worthy of publication regardless of whether the person offering it is the original author or someone else. I see no grounds for any special original author bias here. If there are good arguments to be made for a certain development or defense of a view then those arguments can be made by anyone. Given this fact, any author developing or defending her previous view can, and should, write her paper for anonymous peer review in a way no different from how someone else might write a paper making exactly the same points and arguments. If the paper is accepted she can then rewrite the relevant sentences and paragraphs in it to be appropriately self-referential.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
3 years ago

Most journals ask authors to adopt CITE, at least in my experience, and I think that that is probably good enough. Why?

1. You don’t want to have authors have to recapitulate their prior research each time they wish to build upon it. This would not only make articles longer, it wouldn’t actually solve the “author-blinding” problem.

2. Referees who want to figure out the identity of the author can already do that (either by searching for the title of the paper or with clever websearch skills). In other words, if a referee is determined to know who the author of a paper is, they can find out almost all of the time (unless the author is brand new to the field).

3. Unless an author is citing themselves far out of proportion to others, third-person self-citations do a good job of masking author identity. Of course if you are citing six of your own articles and only one article by any other person, that might be a giveaway though in cases like that, I would say that the author is intentionally trying to be found and that specific problem, I think, is a different one than the one in the OP.

4. This is a “good enough” solution because I don’t think we have any evidence that this sort of thing is a *real* problem in the discipline or any evidence that, if it is a problem, that it is of such a magnitude that it merits a more severe response than third-person self citations (in at least a few cases I have been harsher when reviewing what is obviously an established philosopher’s paper given that my expectations are far higher for Mr. Famous-Pants, so I’m not even sure that bias, insofar as there is one, works in the direction implied by in the OP).Report

Somebody in particular
Somebody in particular
3 years ago

Thanks for the guidance. I’ve received a lot of conflicting advice (which has been frustrating), so I’m glad this discussion is being had.Report

lovesick driftin' cowboy
lovesick driftin' cowboy
3 years ago

This problem came up for me, as an author, recently. I went with citing myself because I feared looking like a plagiarist. Judging by the complete lack of that concern in this discussion, it appears I don’t need to worry about that?Report

Somebody in particular
Somebody in particular
Reply to  lovesick driftin' cowboy
3 years ago

I had one case where I followed Caligula’s Goat’s advice to self-cite in the third person. A reviewer said they inferred that I was either the author being cited or, if I wasn’t, I was “ripping off” that author (in this case, myself). Hence the problem I’ve had trying to figure out how go about this the right way. I’ve asked at least a half-dozen people what to do (including a journal editor who told me to go with ‘redacted’), and I’ve gotten about a half-dozen different answers. Caligula’s goat suggests “we don’t want authors to recapitulate” our previous research, but whenever I’ve tried avoiding summarizing my earlier work, I run into the problem Steve notes below (reviewers get hung up on controversial claims I defended earlier). Hence the problem again. If you don’t summarize your earlier work, reviewers can get hung up on that; and if you do summarize (and self-cite) your previous work, they can have the reaction the OP has. It seems like a scenario where the author can hardly win whatever they do.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Somebody in particular
3 years ago

Hi Somebody in particular,

Seems like the best thing to do when you receive a reviewer report like this is to make as clear as possible, in your R&R letter to the editor, that this concern does not apply (because you are not plagiarizing or ripping off of yourself) and that you believe that you have adequately responded to the concern. This assume, of course, that you receive an R&R on the paper. If the entire article is rejected just because one reviewer has this problem then it might be worth going with another journal or perhaps the article contains a deeper issue unrelated to this problem (it might be that your new contribution, even to your own work is just not clear enough, for example, or it might just mean that your reviewer was lazy and uncharitable).Report

Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

I understand that the aim here is to make things more fair, but are we blindly chasing an unattainable perfection here?

Is it really so unacceptable that, on occasion, a reviewer might be able to reasonably predict the identity of an author? I’m tempted to simply shrug my shoulders. It goes against the desire for absolute anonymity and can threaten fairness, but at some level we’ve simply got to trust adults to more often than not exercise some sense of fairness in judgment even when the temptation and capacity to do otherwise exist.Report

S
S
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

This seems exactly right to me. As a reviewer I’ve read papers where, whatever convention is followed, it’s very clear who wrote it, typically because the paper is part of a larger project. It would be absurd to insist that, in such a case, I should refuse to review; any qualified reviewer in the field would recognise the project; anyone who doesn’t recognise the project isn’t qualified to review. (Ceteris paribus – if I recognise the author and know I have an irrational hatred of him which is bound to influence my assessment, then it’s different!) To be honest, I think a far more serious problem is anonymous reviewers who can’t resist the opportunity repeatedly to discuss their own work, and insist that an R-and-R engages with it, regardless of the relevance.Report

Steve
Steve
3 years ago

One reason in favour of citing one’s own work even at the review stage is to pre-empt a reviewer objecting to the paper on various grounds. So, for example, you might have some paper which relies heavily on some controversial claim, or a paper which clearly has implications for some other debate. A reviewer might think it slightly odd that you don’t engage with those issues more in your paper. In that case, a footnote saying ‘I appreciate this is controversial, but have argued for this view elsewhere’ or ‘this has implications for debate x; I discuss them in my forthcoming’ can be very helpful. Note that I speak here as a reviewer – the self-citation doesn’t necessarily help me identify the author, but does help me understand the overall project a lot better.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
3 years ago

I’ve started doing the first thing–just citing my own work without saying it’s mine. I like this for a few reasons. First, putting the redacted footnotes back together later is a bit tedious, and this strategy obviates that burden. Second, it’s really obnoxious to see “As I’ve argued elsewhere”, just seems narcissistic. Also unnecessary: just drop those words and nothing changes (i.e., cite to the proposition without self-attributing).

Still, someone can probably put it together if there’s, say, ten sources to the same name. But, really, those ten sources aren’t needed: you’re just giving yourself Google citations at some stage. Even if you’re a senior philosopher with a pretty robust portfolio, it’s probably just not necessary to keep citing yourself. (As we’ve noticed other times here, try citing someone else! Particularly people from marginalized groups that aren’t cited as much–it’s worth a few minutes to help promote their work.)Report

RJB
RJB
3 years ago

Maybe philosophy is different from social science, but if you are building on the work of X (20xx), wouldn’t you write it pretty much the same way if you were X or someone else? E.g., X (20xx) argues that [blah]. I extend this work by investigating [blah]…. I don’t see how you could hide the foundation and motivation of the paper, and I don’t see why it is a tacit admission of who you are any more than choosing that topic would be. Full disclosure: I edit a single-blind journal where reviewers know author identities, which we know they usually do because most of us post our manuscripts publicly on SSRN upon or before submission.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  RJB
3 years ago

This conversation seems to me yet another reason to question our current/traditional model of anonymized peer-review in philosophy, and move toward the alternative model used in math, physics, and the social sciences where people openly post and discuss papers online prior to journal submission, and everyone knows who wrote a given paper before it is submitted.

The standard argument against that model is that it is not ‘anonymized.’ However, I’ve argued at length (see below) that anonymized review is systematically compromised in the digital age anyway, and that the alternative model would probably be better–and fairer–all around: for authors, editors, and referees, all of whom routinely express frustrations about our current model.

As RJB notes, in the social sciences (and in math, physics, etc.), their model simply avoids this problem altogether. Since people post papers online prior to submission, their model doesn’t put authors in a difficult position of getting conflicting advice in cases like this and potentially having papers rejected because they didn’t anonymize self-references one way rather than another. It doesn’t have referees getting upset that authors don’t self-refer in the right way. It doesn’t have editors send papers back to authors because they didn’t do it right. And so on.

There are legitimate concerns about the math/physics/social-sciences model. However, I do hope that people consider the conversation we had about those concerns here, as I believe there are reasons to believe that the alternative model has systematic advantages, at least on balance: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2018/07/changing-peer-review-as-good-a-time-as-any.htmlReport

Elizabeth Hannon
3 years ago

For what it’s worth, this is the BJPS position: http://thebjps.typepad.com/my-blog/2015/07/howtoanonymous.html

We ask referees to inform us if they think they know the author. The number of false positives is high, and this seems to be borne out in more systematic research done on blinding in peer review.Report

Mark van Roojen
3 years ago

Not too long ago I refereed a paper that used the 3rd person citation model. It was a second round in a debate but it was well-enough done that I considered the possibility that it was the author of a previous round in the debate but I was not at all confident that it was that author. I would not have bet on it, though I did consider it possible. When I later found out that it was in fact the author of a paper in the previous round I was very impressed because they had truly written it as though they were responding to papers by authors other than themselves. (And the author had clearly put work and thought into making it genuinely anonymous.)

I think this is the kind of thing we want from anonymized review. Uncertainty keeps us from treating articles in many of the ways we are trying to avoid. When a paper might be written by someone I admire or it might not, I think the attitude I have to it is about right for giving my honest opinion as to its merits and whether it is in shape to be published.

I think it would help if journals were clearer about this. As noted in the original post some ways of omitting citations just make it obvious who wrote the present paper. And not citing at all does risk getting unfairly dinged for ignoring relevant work. So a journal’s encouraging third person self-citation in manuscripts might help here.Report