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Opinion: Mutations of citations

Just like genetic information, citations can accumulate heritable mutations

By | September 16, 2010

Few scientific studies have attracted as much attention as the "Cleavage of structural proteins during the assembly of the head of bacteriophage T4", linkurl:published 40 years ago;http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v227/n5259/abs/227680a0.html by Uli Laemmli. Referenced an estimated 2 x 105 times (about 15 daily citations), it is unavoidable that the article is often cited incorrectly. Indeed, database searches reveal more than 600 variations of the correct reference linkurl:(ISI database).;http://wok.mimas.ac.uk/
Figure 1A. Sequence alignment of the correct citation (#1) and a selection of
citation variants (#2-10), comprising the author's name, journal, volume, first
page number and year of publication. Sequence identity is indicated in grey.
Click linkurl:here;http://images.the-scientist.com/content/images/general/figure1a-1.jpg to see a larger version of this image.
Wrong citations (WCs) contain errors in the sequence of letters and numbers that make up the correct citation, including the name of the author or journal, the volume and page numbers or the year of publication (see examples listed in Fig. 1A). The omission, addition or replacement of one character on the keyboard by another lead to variations that can be described in genetic terms and classified as deletions, insertions, point mutations and inversions of characters, or as complete nonsense mutations.
Figure 1B. Incidence of spontaneous WCs in which
the page number is incorrect (Laemmli, U.K. (1970)
Nature 227, 600 through 700). The most common
errors are inversions (680 to 608) or the replacement
of a number with one of similar shape (680 to 630) or
value (680 to 681). Note that the number of correct
citations (estimated at 2 x 105) exceeds the
capacity of the ISI database (216 = 65536 'cytes').
Click linkurl:here;http://images.the-scientist.com/content/images/general/figure1b-1.jpg to see a larger version of this image.
While many citation variants are unique, others are found hundreds of times (see ISI database and examples in Fig. 1A). Which, then, are the principles that govern the distribution of WCs? The incidence of a WC can be explained by the likelihood that a certain character is mixed up with another character. For example, the shape of the number 8 is more similar to a 3 than to a 2; hence these spontaneous events happen at different rates (Fig. 1B). Nonetheless, when searching for incorrect references of Laemmli's article on ISI, citations in which the page number deviates by one are much more common than those with a similar alteration of the year (> 10 fold, Fig. 1A). In this case WCs do not occur in a purely stochastic fashion, since the year bears significance to the typing scientist, thus increasing his proofreading activity. Other WCs, on the other hand, are more frequent than one might expect from their unusual sequence (e.g. #10 in Fig. 1A, which has appeared 11 times since 1983). Since these are often found in publications that cite one another it seems safe to assume that they represent inherited WCs (Fig. 1C).
Figure 1C. Tracing of WCs to an ancestor from 1983
(#10 from Fig. 1A, occurrences 1-9 are identified
by research location and year). Inherited WCs are
generally transmitted between overlapping groups of
scientists within the same institution (boxes) or with
shared research interests (dashed lines). Lineages
are easily identified in articles that cite a previous paper
containing the WC (black lines), although this may involve a
missing link that does not contain the WC itself (e.g. 4 to 7).
Click linkurl:here;http://images.the-scientist.com/content/images/general/figure1c-1.jpg to see a larger version of this image.
In summary, citation variants arise through a variety of mechanisms similar to those described by molecular genetics. They are heritable between scientists and offer exciting insights into the transfer of knowledge. The high incidence of wrong citations reflects the fact that the contained information is to a certain extent redundant and may thus tolerate many mutations. However, it is possible that in the future the number of wrong citations can be minimised by using reference software tools - provided that the database entries are correct in the first place. Christian G. Specht is a neurobiologist working on learning & memory and currently based at the ENS in Paris. Editor's note (October 20): This article generated some online discussion, prompting a response from the author linkurl:here.;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57698/
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Online access = more citations;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55437/
[19th February 2009]*linkurl:More articles, fewer citations;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54839/
[18th July 2008]*linkurl:A new proposal for citation data;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54402/
[4th March 2008]
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Comments

Avatar of: ching lin

ching lin

Posts: 2

September 16, 2010

The listed mutations are editorial; therefore by and large harmless to science. Incorrect or inaccurate citations of the article's content are much more serious. I once needed to cite a reference for a plasmid that was given to me by a colleague. I looked into his papers, which cited other references, and which cited other references, and so forth. I never found the correct reference. There are numerous other examples of misquotes, which became more and more mutated as they were inherited from one paper to another.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

September 16, 2010

I think it is safe to say that the inherited errors arise from authors who did not bother to look at the original paper and simply copied the reference from elsewhere. Which raises these questions: Should you ever cite a work you have not read? How do you know what you are citing and how it bears on your publication if you've never read the original?
Avatar of: Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Posts: 10

September 16, 2010

ISI's Web of Science attempts to correct citations when errors are detected, changing them to resemble other citations in their database. The grouping and promulgation of similar (but incorrect) citations may largely be a result of WoS software and not an indication of poor citation behavior.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

September 16, 2010

I love this article - written with a great sense of humor :) Hopefully this issue will be cured by a plague of usage of software such as EndNote. I agree with the previous comment though - we need to do something about the larger problem of mis-quotations, which drives me crazy and is a product of laziness on the part of authors.
Avatar of: Phillipa Rispin

Phillipa Rispin

Posts: 1

September 16, 2010

Professional medical editors and writers are excellent citation gene therapists.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 85

September 16, 2010

I must disagree with Ching Lin; these mutations are not merely "editorial" and they are by no means "harmless." The "Bioemeritus" comment is 100% on the mark.\n\nA quarter of a century ago, a personal friend of mine had good scientific reason to cite one of my published papers. However, his citation did not use the surname under which the paper was published. Instead, my friend, who knew both me and my (now ex-)husband, under whose surname I was publishing, assumed incorrectly that I was using a hyphenated surname and thus cited the article as by "Maiden-Married, F(irst)" rather than by the correct "Married, F(irst) M(aiden)." Subsequently, some articles appeared in the literature that cited the same article of mine, but which had more to do with this friend's research than with mine; invariably, those authors cited the article by the hyphenated version of my name that was so creatively invented by this friend. Of course, this is circumstantial evidence and not proof that these subsequent authors failed to actually look at my original paper, but it is the most likely hypothesis to explain the phenomenon.\n\nOther observations during my research career, such as coming across papers citing my work that had nothing to do with the papers cited (not even methodology), plus further observations during my subsequent career as a Federal grants administrator, have provided me with ample additional circumstantial evidence in support of the hypothesis.\n\nTo cite a paper without having read it is a form of dishonesty. Dishonesty is flat-out incompatible with science. End of story.
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

September 16, 2010

Interesting!
Avatar of: Vinod Nikhra

Vinod Nikhra

Posts: 48

September 16, 2010

There is some very simple situation as well! As, they say 'Publish or perish'; so many of our dear scientists are in hurry to publish their things! Half-done research, half-done papers and not-so-well-done citations are result of the fierce competition in the field. Here, comes the role of editors and reviewers. But, again most of the journals are peer-reviewed. A favor today will translate into a favor tomorrow, and this is done at the cost of science. \nMany of the researchers just amass citations from other related published papers rather than going through the original papers themselves, and here arise the mutations. I think, this is the most common mechanism through which the variants arise and they further mutate over the time.\n\nVinod Nikhra, M.D.\nwww.vinodnikhra.com\nwww.nikhrafoundation.in\n
Avatar of: LEONARD BANASZAK

LEONARD BANASZAK

Posts: 6

September 16, 2010

The worst form of mutation are the lethal ones. Crystallographers experience them all the time. A published structure always has a journal reference that is contained in the coordinate file. Investigators frequently publish an illustration from the pdb coordinates, give the pdb reference number but never the investigators original published report. The primary reference is dead and a lethal mutation has occured!
Avatar of: ADRIAN SMITH

ADRIAN SMITH

Posts: 1

September 17, 2010

I pointed out many years ago in "New Library World" that ISI Science Citation Index was clocking up citations to a non-existent M.V.C. Bergmeyer.\n\nOnce a research group gets a bum reference into its collective database (card index, or software based) it will live on, by cut-and-paste, in the papers this group generates.
Avatar of: Richard Adler

Richard Adler

Posts: 1

September 20, 2010

I've discussed what I call "geneological error" with my students for years. Usually what happens is rather than finding the original sources, the writer - and this may include experienced scientists - uses someone else's previous citation. Sometimes it is wrong, and the error perpetuates.An example I once used is that of Jonas Salk's 1945 paper discussing his influenza vaccine. I don't recall specifics, but of some 150 citations, about 10 had the wrong pages or year,another 10 or so had the wrong volume, and one had the wrong journal.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

September 20, 2010

By my reckoning it is unethical to cite a paper unless you have a copy of the full reference either electronically or as a paper copy. Many times I have read what others a have cited to support a statement and found the citation woefully does not support the statement.\nWhile we may stand on the shoulders of giant when doing research, even giants make mistakes sometimes...\n
Avatar of: Christopher Howe

Christopher Howe

Posts: 1

September 21, 2010

This is a similar phenomenon to the incorporation of changes in manuscripts as they were copied by scribes in medieval times. Phylogenetic tree-building programmes are very useful for studying this - see for example Barbrook AC et al (1998) "The Phylogeny of the Canterbury Tales" Nature 394:839.
Avatar of: T Gopalakrishna

T Gopalakrishna

Posts: 1

September 28, 2010

Do these mutations arise since different journals have different formats for bibliography? Do people feel that if we have one format for all the journals, then the mutation rate will decrease?
Avatar of: ANTON FEENSTRA

ANTON FEENSTRA

Posts: 1

September 29, 2010

I'd like to protest the conclusion that some draw that WC inheritance shows people are citing 'blindly', i.e. without having read the paper. I habitually copy colleagues reference entries (e.g. from BibTeX), potentially containing errors, but I do generally read the papers.
Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

October 22, 2010

I get around the inheritance problem by sequentially quoting my own papers for the method for SDS-PAGE, only the first of which cited UK Laemmli. Correctly. I have, however, been known to quote myself incorrectly...B-)
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

October 22, 2010

All I can say is use reference manager software and this should no longer be a problem and READ your references before citing them!!!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

October 23, 2010

I completely agree that citing a paper without bothering to read is not acceptable. However, in my opinion, if you get your reference automatically from ISI etc, it can contain error, whether you read or not. Also this first name, last name, middle name could be really confusing for researchers who don't have same concept as western people. For example, I downloaded a reference of which format was not compatible with EndNote. So somehow last and first names were switched. I'm a person who accustomed to using only first name so I didn't notice it was wrong. Just after I got another citation from that author which was properly cited, I realized my mistake. I read both articles. So, I'd say before jumping into conclusion, just consider about circumstances. For example, article of my collegue was cited differently. First of all, the first letter of his last name in his language is written by one letter however it needs to letters to express it in english. Secondly, due to confusion between first and last names, citations also not same. It's tricky business sometimes. So I guess some people want to be in safe side and use same wrong but published format. So only good solution for that might be editors and reference database managing companies. That of course shouldn't release authors from duty to read carefully before publish
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

October 24, 2010

I think examples 7-9 in Fig. 1A can all be categorized as point mutations, and example 6 as translocation.
Avatar of: JAMES PAULSON

JAMES PAULSON

Posts: 1

January 28, 2011

Thanks to Christian Specht for an interesting article. As a graduate student in Uli Laemmli's lab in the 1970s, I noticed the same phenomenon that Specht has written about, but in the printed version of the Science Citation Index. Back then, Laemmli's 1970 paper was still only the second most cited paper, behind OH Lowry et al (1951). I always wondered if Laemmli would have been in first place if all the mis-citations could be counted as well. What the whole phenomenon shows to me is that many many people are not very careful in citing references. One wonders how often people cite papers that others have cited, without having actually read the papers themselves.

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