Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present a narrative review of studies on the citing behavior of scientists, covering mainly research published in the last 15 years. Based on the results of these studies, the paper seeks to answer the question of the extent to which scientists are motivated to cite a publication not only to acknowledge intellectual and cognitive influences of scientific peers, but also for other, possibly non‐scientific, reasons.Design/methodology/approach – The review covers research published from the early 1960s up to mid‐2005 (approximately 30 studies on citing behavior‐reporting results in about 40 publications).Findings – The general tendency of the results of the empirical studies makes it clear that citing behavior is not motivated solely by the wish to acknowledge intellectual and cognitive influences of colleague scientists, since the individual studies reveal also other, in part non‐scientific, factors that play a part in the decision to cite. However, the results of the studies must also be deemed scarcely reliable: the studies vary widely in design, and their results can hardly be replicated. Many of the studies have methodological weaknesses. Furthermore, there is evidence that the different motivations of citers are “not so different or ‘randomly given’ to such an extent that the phenomenon of citation would lose its role as a reliable measure of impact”.Originality/value – Given the increasing importance of evaluative bibliometrics in the world of scholarship, the question “What do citation counts measure?” is a particularly relevant and topical issue.