Amir Rubin and Eran Rubin have a clever new paper in the JPE on strategic citations (SSRN). In order to obtain publications in top-tiered journals, get invited to conferences, become a reference and so forth:
…authors may cite top-tier journals as a way to enhance their relationships with those journals.They may further consider the preferences of top-tier journals’ referees for such citations. Typically, these referees serve more than one top-tier journal, which they potentially even more appreciate as quality signals and whose top-tier status they wish to preserve by receiving citations. Consequently, authors may consider the expected positive impact of top-tier journal citations in satisfying referees.
Rubin and Rubin have a unique test of this behavior. For administrative reasons, the Journal of Business, a top journal in finance, stopped publication in 2006. Thus, after 2006, there were fewer strategic reasons to cite JOB papers even though the scientific reasons to cite these papers remained constant. The authors test this by matching articles in the JOB with articles in similar journals published in the same year and having the same number of citations in the two years following publication–thus they match on similar articles with a similar citation trajectory. What they find is that post-2006 the citation count of the JOB articles falls substantially off the expected trajectory. The figure below illustrates.
The finding is robust to controlling for self-citations, own-journal citations, and a variety of other possibilities. The authors also show that deceased authors get fewer citations than matched living authors. For example, living Nobel prize winners get more citations than dead ones even when they were awarded the prize jointly.
Rubin and Rubin suggest this bias might be correctable with more metadata on citations. Negative citations, for example, can be very informative about the development of a scientific field. I am not sure the problem is big enough to worry about but I was impressed by how much strategic behavior can be uncovered by clever data analysis. I was also convinced I should be more strategic in my citations.