In my last post, I offered some guidelines on choosing citations. The very first guideline was to avoid conflicts of interest, which generally refers to citing yourself (but also applies to your close collaborators). Now, I’m going to describe how to cite yourself. I’m not changing my mind on this topic, but I believe that there are scenarios when self-citations are justified. Here, I’m going to list when it’s ok to cite yourself and how you should do it.
To re-iterate, by default you shouldn’t cite your own work, since this creates a conflict of interest. Readers (especially reviewers!) will legitimately ask if you’re citing yourself just to pad your citation count. Of course, your intent is probably not that malicious. Consider these two more innocent (but still not great) reasons:
- You want to build your credibility. What better way to establish that you know what you’re talking about if you’ve already written on the subject?
- You know your work. You’re most likely to cite the papers that you know best. Whose work do you know better than your own?
Nevertheless, you should apply greater scrutiny to citing your work than citing anyone else.
Valid Reasons to Cite Yourself
Here is my list of valid reasons to self-cite, in decreasing order of legitimacy:
- You are re-using your own result. This could be an equation, algorithm, figure, system model, or anything else concrete that would be blatant self-plagiarism if you didn’t cite it.
- Your new work is a direct continuation of your previous work. By direct, I don’t mean just on the same topic, but an extension of the earlier work. For example, this could be the journal version of a conference paper, or a paper that addresses the weaknesses that were identified in the earlier work.
- You are repeating an argument that you already made. Let’s say you made a non-trivial assumption in an earlier paper and you gave a detailed justification. If you need to make the same assumption in a new paper, then you should be able to cite the earlier work without needing to repeat all of the details.
- You need to avoid confusion. If you have similar previous work, and a reader might be legitimately confused about how the novelty in the new paper, then you should cite and clarify the differences. You need to be very careful in this case and not just use this as an opportunity to promote your own work.
How to Cite Yourself
Ok, let’s say that you have a legitimate reason to cite yourself. Fortunately, that was the hard part. But you should still make a self-citation professional.
- Make it clear that you’re self-citing. Don’t make it appear that you’re actually citing someone else, or bury your self-citation in the middle of a long group of references; I’ve seen both of these and it doesn’t appear professional. Disclose what you did. Besides, if the citation is legitimate, then you are building your credibility.
- Stay modest. It’s one thing to acknowledge your previous contributions, but another to promote it like an advertisement. Avoid subjective language. You can claim to be the first to have done something, but to say how amazing it was is probably too far. Leave the accolades to other authors.
Here are some quick examples that make it clear that you’re self-citing and avoid subjective language:
In our previous work in [XX], we established that [DESCRIBE RELEVANT CONTRIBUTIONS]. Here, we now consider that [DESCRIBE WHAT THIS PAPER ADDS TO THOSE CONTRIBUTIONS]
We are studying the system model that we introduced in [XX], where [SUMMARIZE MODEL WITH NECESSARY DETAILS]
We previously solved this equation as [XX, Eq. YY] (then re-write the equation)
As in [XX], we will assume that [ASSUMPTION WITH BRIEF MOTIVATION]
That’s all that I have to say on self-citations. I think that the natural tendency is to include as many self-citations as you can, but it’s important to resist that urge to maintain academic integrity. If you have legitimately objective reasons, then I believe that you can credibly cite your own work.