Editorial Insights: Cite Intelligently

Serving as one of two editors of Food Policy over the last few years, I have lost count of the number of times I have received a manuscript where it was clear that the authors did not think carefully about the works they were citing. I’m hoping this post will help younger researchers understand the citation economy.

Why do the works you are citing matter? Because unless your manuscript is on a topic I know extremely well and I can immediately think of two or three potential reviewers just by looking at your title or abstract, in most cases, I will start looking for potential reviewers by jumping directly to your references list.

Now, imagine I receive an article on a topic I don’t know much about (say, international trade), and all I see are references to Acemoglu and Robinson this, Acemoglu and Robinson that, Krugman here, and Stiglitz there, and so on.

Moreover, imagine that the articles referenced in the manuscript are almost all in journals like the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, or Econometrica, and no reference is made to articles in Food Policy or its sister journals (e.g., the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Economics, etc.)

For the authors, this is usually a bad citation strategy, for two reasons:

  1. If I am not an expert on your topic (and really, I can only an expert on two or three topics in my lifetime), the only authors you cite are famous economists, and you don’t cite articles from our journal or sister journals, it will almost surely take me a lot longer to find reviewers for your paper. I’m so sure Acemoglu, Robinson, Krugman, and Stiglitz have their plates full and convinced that they would turn down a request to referee for Food Policy that I don’t even bother asking. But this means I have to spend time identifying potential reviewers from the set of people who have published in and are likely to review for Food Policy. This in itself takes time, but what takes even more time is my potentially asking the wrong people the first time, who take one or two weeks before declining. This all adds up, and it can considerably extend the time a paper is “under review” when it is not really under review, just waiting for the right reviewers, leading to frustration on the part of authors, and
  2. If I am not an expert on your topic, the only authors you cite are famous economists, and you don’t cite articles from our journal or sister journals, the people who do end up agreeing to review are probably not the ideal reviewers for your work, because I will have had to ask around (for instance, I might ask an editor friend who they’d recommend for a trade manuscript), I might use one of our editorial system’s find-a-reviewer tool, which goes by keywords or, in the limit and when your paper has already been with me for a month and I still don’t have a second reviewer, I might ask one of our graduate students working on a topic somewhat related to yours. Again, this all adds up, and it often means you end up getting “bad” reviews–bad both because positive reviewers make somewhat useless comments, but also bad because negative reviewers, not being experts on your topic, are likely to require a lot more convincing that your topic is worth publishing, both of which lead to frustration on the part of authors.

The issue I raise is entirely distinct from the issue of “strategic citation,” where you (don’t) cite so-and-so’s work because you know they (dis)like your work (which I think is really risky, because editors who know the literature often see through this).

Likewise, it is also distinct from the fact that if your manuscript only cites articles in field journals, it is unlikely to be published in a top general journal.

Rather, this is about citing the right literature for the journal you are submitting to. And lest you think this is purely a field journal issue, note that even if you send all your manuscripts to the AER, the JPE, and Econometrica, it is not a good strategy to only cite famous economists (who are unlikely to have time for your manuscript) and avoid citing field journals (where a lot of work relevant to yours has been published by people who are highly likely to want to review for top journals).

If you are just starting out, it is easy to believe that it’ll make you look more learned and scholarly to cite all those classic papers and famous economists, but citing the right authors in the right journals is what gets you reviews that are both timely and of good quality, which matters a lot more to your performance than merely looking learned and scholarly.

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