Study proposes a taxonomy of motives to cite articles in scientific publications

By Lilian Nassi-Calò

Picture: Derek Bruff

Picture: Derek Bruff.

Science advances based on accumulated previous knowledge, and researchers make their contributions from the discoveries of others. The most common way to refer to previous papers in scientific articles is by citations to published articles. However, the importance of citations in scientific communication and modern scientometrics goes far beyond the simple attribution of authorship or acknowledgment of original ideas from other authors. Citations have become valuable currency that gives credibility, visibility and prestige, becoming a proxy for quality.

Different authors from different disciplines have different habits to cite, but it is assumed as generally true that researchers have established repertoires of reasons to cite. Based on this premise, the Swedish authors Martin Erikson and Peter Erlandson propose a model that attempts to explain the range of motives that govern the practice of citations during the writing of scientific articles in general, regardless of the area of knowledge1.

The understanding of scientific practice involves the exploration of the reasons for citing, a process that involves psychosocial decisions. Of these, motivation is perhaps the most important topic that affects the validity of citation analysis. Furthermore, understanding the reasons for and the effects of citation can provide a greater understanding of quantitative citation analysis, and if all citations should be treated equally or not. This analysis assumes crucial importance today, given the growing impact of bibliometric studies on evaluation of journals, research, researchers, institutions and granting of research funds.

There are mainly two conceptual approaches on citation practices of scientific literature. The first is normative and involves exchange of credit in the scientific community2. In this approach, citations are seen as a form of symbolic currency used to pay intellectual debts. The second is a social constructionist approach3,4,5 and argues that citations cannot be understood merely through intellectual function domain. The two approaches are brought together on the understanding that citations are a meeting point between the rhetorical system to create influence and power, a system of exchange of credit for the work done6.

Numerous studies examined by the authors analyzed the citations practice in the scientific literature, but focused mainly on their classification, or its interpretation from the point of view of the reader. Many of them are even totally irrelevant to sustain the author’s arguments, and can serve, for example, to promote his own work, or to point dependence of the cited author, or any personal or professional benefit.

The article in question, however, focuses primarily on the reasons to cite, since there is evidence that there is little or no correlation between the motives chosen by the authors to cite and the interpretation by readers to explore, instead of classifying or analyzing quantitatively the citations, the reasons for their inclusion in the articles.

The starting point of the study is the design of the author about potential readers through the process of scientific writing. Potential readers include the cited authors, reviewers, editors, colleagues, opponents, funding agencies, or general readers in the scientific community. Not all authors consider them in their entirety, but some do it to some extent. The citing author tries to influence their readers within his interests, but seeks to achieve balance by adhering to scientific ideals. In order to identify the author’s goal, the article in question proposes a number of distinct functions that citations can bring the author.

The four main categories of “motives to cite” proposed by Erikson and Erlandson intend to provide an overview of these reasons. They are (i) Argumentation, (ii) Social Alignment, (iii) Mercantile Alignment and (iv) Data. A citation may belong to more than one category even if it appears only once in the text. The first three are found in articles of all kinds, while the latter is used only in review articles or meta-analysis.


This is the traditional function of citing, where a reference is included to support an idea or point of view. This category can be subdivided into five subcategories: Delimitation, Active Support, Active Criticism, Passive Support and Further Reading.

In citation by delimitation the author places his work in relation to various theoretical approaches or methodologies, and can emphasize or silence them in order to clarify his point of departure, stating which parts of the article cited are not relevant, without revealing criticism or approval.

Active Support is used when the author uses citation to reinforce arguments showing that others share his opinion, and necessarily implies that the cited author is correct. By doing so, the citing author assumes an active point of view by using references prior to his work as explicit arguments.

Active Criticism involves critical argumentation based on the discussion of alleged errors by the cited author regarding methodological details, conceptual deficiencies or conclusions, or yet criticism of general approaches or schools of thought. As in active support, the author uses citation to defend his study but, in this case, pointing flaws in previous studies. Importantly, negative citations represent a small fraction of published citations as citing authors are reluctant to give negative credit to other authors.

The strength of a citation may not be in the line of argument it proposes, but only on the prestige of the journal where it was published. The prestigious study, therefore, can be cited to gain any advantages, but in case of Passive Support, it can be included if the citing author considers that its inclusion could reinforce his point of view, even if there are other more appropriate, but less prestigious article to be cited. A particular example of this type are citations that support ideas considered as tacit knowledge.

Citations that are not directly related to the argument of the article, but are used for directing Further Reading are the last subcategory of Argumentation. Unlike the previous ones, however, these citations are indirect in their function, but are used when the scope of the article is limited, and give the author the feeling that his article will be more complete with its inclusion.

Social Alignment

In the second main category, the reason to cite is in the author’s identity, or on his or her self-concept. In all its subcategories – Scientific Tradition, Scientific Self-Image, and Effort Compensation – the author presents himself throughout the text while providing the security of a well-defined field. These references are more used to demonstrate the professional associations of the author than to support an argument, and therefore, are called proforma citations. Anyway, to show their associations and collaborations the citing author creates a context to the potential reader.

The subcategory Scientific Tradition covers at least three dimensions, being broad and important. One should first consider the differences between scientific disciplines regarding the number and type of references considered valid to mention, secondly, differences in expectations regarding the independence demonstrated by the author in selecting and using citations, and finally, the differences of expectation as to which source to cite. These choices will depend on the type of publication (journal articles or monographs) and also because there are references considered seminal in each area, whose employment provide additional persuasion power to the text.

The Scientific Self-Image of an author can be molded in his publication by using citations, for example, showing him or she positioned in the mainstream or avant-garde. The author can also position himself in this aspect citing other traditions, or highlighting ideas and thoughts from other disciplines. In this subcategory, the citation is not used to define the tradition with which the author wishes to be identified, but rather to build a desired picture of how the author positions himself towards his tradition. Thus, reputable articles can be cited to earn their credibility, even if they do not seem related to the specific content of the study.

Citation by Effort Compensation occurs when an author reads an article completely to eventually discover that it is not aligned to his study, but it ends up being cited to somehow compensate for the effort to have read it, believing that its inclusion might help improve his self-image.

Mercantile Alignment

When using citations in order to earn credit in several ways, the citing author incurs in Mercantile Alignment. Robert Merton’s norm, according to which citation arises from

credit exchange in the scientific community applies to this category, which can be valued as much discouraged. The subcategories that compose it are Credit, Own Credentials, Bartering Material, Self-Promotion, and Pledging.

There are distinctions between giving credit to the work of other authors and include them in an argument, and some authors suggest that more important than recognizing the property rights of an author is, in fact, the power of persuasion exercised by the citation. Anyway, giving credit to other authors is essential in the scientific writing process and it shows that the idea has been, to some extent, shared with others. By sharing knowledge through citation, the author may have weakened his argument, but for every citation made ​​that credit returns to the citing author, for its rigor and knowledge on the subject.

Talented authors who want to demonstrate their broad domain in a theme can make use of various sources of citations that combined the right way, work in his favor. In these cases, the citations – own credentials – are included not because of its content, but for the simple fact that a long list of them may denote a large knowledge or a more ambitious approach.

In the Bartering Material citation process, the author includes in his study a citation expecting to be cited back, thus, creating a sort of collaboration between authors from the same institution or research area. Its frequent use, however, can lead to inhibition of new ideas.

Self-Promoting citations occurs when the citing author cites his own previous publications, intending to give them more visibility and interest. It has been noticed in recent years an increasing trend in the number of self-citations in quantitative citation analyzes.

In citation by Pledging the author aims to impress the editor or reviewers of the journal, being comprehensive and thorough is the choice of the references as per its number. One should, however, avoid including references published in the same journal, because it is a not recommended practice in several instances. More acceptable is to include citations suggested by the reviewer during the review process.


The fourth category differs from the three previous ones because the literature cited in this case is used as data by the citing author. There are three main subcategories on data: Review, Meta-Analysis and Text Study.

In reviews, the purpose of the citation is to present the reader with an overview of an area, in a review article or dissertation.

In meta-analysis the author cites the article to use the data on which the cited article is about as the basis for a new study. Through comparison and combination of results from previously published studies new result patterns may emerge, corroborating or contradicting the theories and methods that are being analyzed. Citations on systematic reviews also fit this category.

In texts study, the cited text is taken as data in an empirical study, for example, discourse analysis, in which the cited article is not exactly a scientific article, but expresses an opinion.


The taxonomy of reasons to cite presented by Erikson and Erlandson illustrates the complexity of the psychology of citations in scientific articles. Thus, it is impossible to identify in a published article whether a reference was cited for this or that reason. However, given the importance that citations reached in the analysis of journals, researchers, institutions, and the entire scientific community, the proposed taxonomy can, for example, provide a theoretical basis for empirical research on how junior researchers develop their citation practices within a group. Anyway, the reflection of the authors points to analyze their own reasons to cite the articles in their study. They invite – and challenge readers – to draw conclusions about their motives to cite analyzing the way in which the citations appear throughout the text.


¹ ERIKSON, M.G., and ERLANDSON, P. A taxonomy of motives to cite. Soc. Stud. Sci. 2014, vol. 44, nº 4, pp. 625-637.

² MERTON, R.K. The normative structure of science. In: MERTON, R.K., ed. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1973. pp. 267–278.

³ GILBERT, G.N. The transformation of research findings into scientific knowledge. Soc. Stud. Sci. 1976, vol. 6, nº 3/ 4, pp. 281–306.

4 GILBERT, G.N. Referencing as persuasion. Soc. Stud. Sci. 1977, vol. 7, nº 1, pp. 113–122. Latour, 1987

5 LATOUR, B. Science in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

6 COZZENS, S.E. What do citations count? The rhetoric-first model. Scientometrics. 1989, vol. 15, nº 5–6, pp. 437–447.


ERIKSON, M.G., and ERLANDSON, P. A taxonomy of motives to cite. Soc. Stud. Sci. 2014, vol. 44, nº 4, pp. 625-637.


lilianAbout Lilian Nassi-Calò

Lilian Nassi-Calò studied chemistry at Instituto de Química – USP, holds a doctorate in Biochemistry by the same institution and a post-doctorate as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Wuerzburg, Germany. After her studies, she was a professor and researcher at IQ-USP. She also worked as an industrial chemist and presently she is Coordinator of Scientific Communication at BIREME/PAHO/WHO and a collaborator of SciELO.


Translated from the original in portuguese by Lilian Nassi-Calò.


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NASSI-CALÒ, L. Study proposes a taxonomy of motives to cite articles in scientific publications [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2014 [viewed ]. Available from:


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