There are many reasons why authors cite other authors. Often, citations are motivated by the wish to acknowledge the influences of colleagues. Yet, this is clearly not the full picture. An alternative view is that people tend to cite within their social network: authors will cite works by authors they have interpersonal connections with (1).

Roger Tsien, 2008 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry

We have previously discussed how winning a Nobel Prize can affect citations. In Did you know?, we note that 2008 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Roger Tsien, has received 38,989 citations*. But, is this because of his large interpersonal network or the influence that his work has had on other researchers?

Tsien’s 1998 paper, “The green fluorescent protein” (2), has been cited 1,814 times*. Professor Uli Nienhaus, from the Institute of Biophysics at the University of Ulm, Germany, has cited this paper on several occasions. He says: “This paper summarizes essential biochemical and biophysical research results on green fluorescent protein up to 1998. It is a comprehensive, clearly written treatise that is an excellent introduction to this field. And this is why we refer readers to this review in the introductory paragraphs of our own research papers.”

Professor Rebekka M. Wachter, from the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis at Arizona State University, US, has also cited Tsien’s 1998 article on more than one occasion. She explains: “Roger Tsien is an eminent authority on fluorescent proteins. His ground-breaking work on green fluorescent protein and its variants is nicely summarized in his 1998 review article. Also, his research on green fluorescent protein maturation paved the way for an active and highly productive project area in my lab on the mechanism of the green fluorescent protein self-processing reaction that yields visible color.”

Looking at an older paper by Tsien from 1980 (3), the same reasons for citing it apply. Dr. Sandra Claro from the Biofysics Department at São Paulo University in Brazil confirms that she cited Tsien’s paper because “he was the first to do experiments chelating intracellular calcium by BAPTA. In addition, he is a respected researcher.”

These researchers cite Tsien to acknowledge his authority in the field rather than for personal reasons. Or, as Professor Nienhaus puts it: “The purpose of citing related work is not to do someone a favor but to provide additional background and support to scientific statements and conclusions.”

However, he adds that citing because of interpersonal connections is not necessarily a bad thing. “Science is a social activity and if I know a researcher in person it is likely that I am also more familiar with his or her work. Moreover, a personal relationship may also build enhanced confidence and trust in someone’s results. That may then lead to a certain bias in the choice of citations. I view this as entirely acceptable and unavoidable.”

Even though the anecdotal evidence presented here shows that authors cite authors out of acknowledgement for scientific influences, the critical comment placed here indicates that citing people who are personal acquaintances is not necessarily objectionable.

* Source: Scopus

Useful links:

References:

(1) Bornmann, L. and Daniel, H.P. (2006) “What do citation counts measure? A review of studies on citing behaviour”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 64, Issue 1, pp. 45–80.
(2) Tsien, R.Y. (1998) “The green fluorescent protein”, Annual Review of Biochemistry, Issue 67, pp. 509–544.
(3) Tsien, R.Y. (1980) “New calcium indicators and buffers with high selectivity against magnesium and protons: Design, synthesis, and properties of prototype structures”, Biochemistry, Vol. 19, Issue 11, pp. 2396–2404.
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