Fast and Loose Citations

As any budding scientist, I spend a lot of time reading the literature in my field to find sound methods and come up with novel ideas. I often forget details of paper #45 when I’m reading paper #145, so I naturally go and reread (skim) the older one. I especially do this when I’m writing a proposal or a manuscript because it certainly wouldn’t make sense to just sorta, kinda remember and go with my gut on what paper #45 concluded. There is an assumption that, based on the ethics of science, fellow scientists understand and value the importance of properly citing previous studies, giving credit where it is due, and not falsifying data.

Unfortunately, I fear too many academics write manuscripts without checking their facts or reviewing papers they haven’t read for months (or even years). Of course, it is up to me, the reader, to check references and use my critical thinking skills to decide which statements may be a bit off and which I can trust because it is from a classic paper. However, for the sake of advancing science, it is crucial that we check our facts and not default to a fuzzy memory.

It goes without saying that there is no magic fairy or full-time reference-checker that is going through each citation in a peer-review process. Human beings, likely academics with extremely busy schedules, are reviewing the manuscript and they don’t have time to check every reference. They may have read most of them, sure, given that they are supposed to be an expert in your field, but they likely have not read them all.

Improperly citing studies can be damaging for a couple reasons.

1. I look at the first author (sometimes gasping in disbelief if it is someone I admire) and wonder how they could submit something so sloppy.

2. It damages the advancement of science. As a simple example, if I am designing a study and I’m interested in trying method A, I may be reading a paper that says, “…Shenanigans and colleagues tried method A and it was a failure”. Well, thankfully, I check into that paper before giving up all hope that method A is a failure because it may just turn out that they had contamination. Worse, I have read manuscripts that blatantly state the opposite of what a study found because it is clear they read only the title and not the content of the paper. From conversations with colleagues, I am not the only one that has had an issue with this.

Just as a graduate committee member should be able to read a proposal with confidence that the references and information you cite are products of hard work and integrity on your part, putting your ideas and findings out there in peer-review for everyone to see should come with the same expectation. Sadly, if people are sloppy with their citations, I wonder about their research. This post is as much about a small vent as it is about cautioning others to check, check, check.

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