Men Who Admire Their Own Work

Study finds male scholars are more likely than female scholars, across disciplines, to engage in self-citation. Does this give men a leg up in academic promotions?

August 25, 2015

Numerous studies have found that men are more likely to think highly of themselves and their talents than are women when they evaluate themselves.

A new study finds that these patterns extend to self-citation, in which scholars cite their own past work in new studies. Some scholars frown on the practice, while others note that there may be circumstances where such citations are necessary. But whether one has permissive or skeptical attitudes about self-citation, shouldn't the patterns be the same for men and women?

The study -- released Monday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association -- found that 31 percent of men engage in self-citation, compared to only 21 percent of women. The research was prepared by Molly M. King and Shelley J. Correll of Stanford University, Jennifer Jacquet of New York University, and Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West of the University of Washington.

"Self-citation may have a consequential impact on scholarly careers by both directly and indirectly increasing an author’s citation counts," says the paper summarizing the study. "Given the importance of metrics of scholarly influence in academic hiring, tenure and salary decisions, examining gender differences in citation patterns may shed light on persisting gender discrepancies in faculty hiring and promotion. More broadly, academic publishing provides an illustrative case for gender differences in evaluation metrics and workplace advancement."

A 2013 study in the journal International Organization documented the gender gap in self-citation in a single field -- international relations.

But the new study (while confirming the 2013 work) is much larger and crosses many disciplines. This one is based on an analysis of 1.6 million papers written from 1950 to the present in the scholarly database JSTOR. While some first names are not gender exclusive, the study looked at first names that correspond with either men or women, but not both, at least 95 percent of the time, according to various public records. Papers written by people with names such as "Jody," which did not get to 95 percent association with a gender, were excluded from the database.

The study found that the gap between male and female patterns of self-citation has grown over time. In the 1950s, the ratio of men to women engaged in self-citation was 1.27 to 1. But starting in the 1960s, the ratio grew and has been stable for the past two decades at about 1.71 to 1.

One theory explored by the authors -- without finding confirmation -- was that perhaps women would do more self-citation in fields in which their share of papers was larger. (Throughout the sample studied over all, men wrote far more papers than women, although some of the time period covered was during a period of limited opportunities for women as professors.)

The researchers found that the five fields with the lowest self-citation rates by women were history, classical studies, international political science, mathematics and anthropology. That list includes a field with relatively few papers by women (mathematics, at 7.1 percent) and a field with a relatively high share (anthropology, at 37.5 percent). Similarly, fields with the highest rates of self-citation by women include sociology (where 46.1 percent of papers are by women) but also U.S. domestic political science (at 17.3 percent) and ecology and evolution (at 22.9 percent).

As to why men engage in self-citation at higher rates than women, the authors of the paper say some of it could be due to academic specialization. Men, in some fields, are more likely to be extremely specialized, in theory making the pool of people to cite smaller. Another theory is that women are underrepresented on single-author papers, perhaps making them less likely to have material that would be cited.

But the authors also speculate that some of this may be due to men being … well, men. "Men may self-cite more because they evaluate their abilities more positively than women. Men face fewer social sanctions for self-promotion," the paper says.

"The increasing movement of women into what had previously been almost exclusively 'men’s jobs' may have led some men to cite their own work more as a way of enhancing their scholarly reputation in the face of growing competition from women. This second possible, albeit conspiratorial-sounding mechanism to explain the widening gap -- that men may have increased self-citation behavior as a compensatory response as more women entered the academy -- has some indirect scholarly evidence," the paper says.

"One experimental study tested men’s response to group status threat. Men were randomly assigned to a computer-based woman partner who either ascribed to traditional gender roles or reported being a feminist seeking a traditionally male-typed job as a bank manager (the 'legitimacy threat' condition). Those assigned to the legitimacy threat condition were more likely to sexually harass the woman -- in other words, they were more likely to react to threat in a compensatory way. Another experiment found that men -- but not women -- who experienced threats to their gender identity express greater desire for dominance and support for societal dominance hierarchies. When men feel threatened, they compensate with greater displays of masculinity."

Further, the paper notes the following of women: "When women seek to actively establish their competence by self-promoting (e.g., by advocating for a raise based on their performance on a project, or asserting their suitability for a leadership position) they often experience backlash from both men and women. Though self-promotion enhances competence assessments, it also reduces a woman's likability. These gendered perceptions of self-promotion likely influence perceptions of self-citation, a form of self-promotion in the academic workplace."

Even if the reasons for the patterns are not clear, the authors write, the topic deserves more attention, given the way citations are used by so many departments and institutions to evaluate faculty members.

"When interpreting the impact metrics of scholars' work, university hiring and tenure committees should be aware that women are likely to cite their own work less often," the paper says. "Considering other proposed measures for scientific impact that exclude self-citation could make evaluation processes less gender biased and improve equity in the academic community."


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