Demand Citation Vigilance

In 1992, I discussed "bibliographic negligence," and a decade earlier I discussed "citation amnesia."

By | January 21, 2002

Isaac Ginsburg's "Disregard Syndrome"1 produced a spate of letters. Such anecdotal evidence for unwitting or intentional duplication of research is common. But I am not aware of any systematic study of the extent of such duplication. In 1992, I discussed "bibliographic negligence,"2 and a decade earlier I discussed "citation amnesia."3 In the latter, I cited John Martyn's now classic survey of more than 647 British scientists,4 which indicated that 22% of researchers had missed relevant information that would have saved time, money, or work. But his study did not measure the extent of deliberate disregard of the literature. And there are other variants such as unconscious plagiarism or cryptomnesia, a term invented by Sigmund Freud and discussed by Robert K. Merton,5 and reviewed in the Current Contents essays cited and in a follow-up published two years later.6

While the journal literature is often deficient in documentation, it is small compared to the bibliographic neglect displayed by inventors and patent examiners. To encourage honesty in these matters the US Patent office expedites patent applications that are supported with prior art searches conducted by professional patent searchers. But there is no strict legal requirement for this. However, years of neglect have led to the issuance of thousands of absurd patents, many of which have been challenged in the courts.

There will never be a perfect solution to the problem of acknowledging intellectual debts. But a beginning can be made if journal editors will demand a signed pledge from authors that they have searched Medline, Science Citation Index, or other appropriate print and electronic databases. Perhaps researchers need to sign the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath that includes a profile of the terms used in searching. Editors and readers can and often do chastise authors who violate that implicit understanding. Working out the details awaits the establishment of an appropriate "science court"7,8 that could deal with intellectual theft, intentional or otherwise. These matters come under the general heading of literature forensics, admirably discussed by Chris Daughton of the EPA Environmental Chemistry Branch.9 Faith McLellan has provided an apt discussion of the idea of "Old Medline" and the older literature in general.10

Eugene Garfield ( is president and editor in chief of The Scientist.

1. I. Ginsburg, "The Disregard Syndrome: A menace to honest science," The Scientist, 15[24]:51, Dec. 10, 2001.

2. E. Garfield, "Bibliographic negligence: A serious transgression," The Scientist, 5[23]:14, Nov. 25, 1991. Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Volume 14, pages 398-99. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1992.

3. E. Garfield, "From citation amnesia to bibliographic plagiarism," Current Contents, No. 23, pages 5-9, June 9, 1980. Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Volume 4, pages 503-507. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1981.

4. J. Martyn, "Unintentional Duplication of Research," New Scientist, 377:388, 1964.

5. R.K. Merton, The Sociology of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pages 402-3, 1973.

6. E. Garfield, "More on the ethics of scientific publication: abuses of authorship attribution and citation amnesia undermine the reward system of science," Current Contents, No. 30, pages 5-10, July 26, 1982. Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Volume 5, pages 621-626. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1983.

7. E. Garfield, "Can a science court settle controversies between scientists?" Current Contents, No. 28, pages 3-6, July 10, 1989. Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Volume 12, pages 189-191. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1991.

8. E. Garfield, "Contemplating a science court: On the question of Institutionalizing scientific fact finding,"The Scientist 1[6]:9, 29, Feb. 9, 1987. Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Volume 12, pages 191-192. Philadelphia: ISI Press (1991).

9 C.G. Daughton, "Literature forensics? Door to what was known but now forgotten," Environmental Forensics, 2:277-82, 2001.

10. F. McLellan, "1966 and all that - when is a literature search done?" The Lancet, 358[9282]:646, Aug. 25, 2001.


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