Opinion: Citation mutation, revisited
The discussion surrounding article references that acquire heritable mistakes continues
__This letter responds to a recent linkurl:post;http://blogs.plos.org/mfenner/2010/09/20/letter-to-the-scientist/ on the __PLoS__-hosted __Gobbledygook__ blog in which blogger and cancer researcher linkurl:Martin Fenner;http://www.mendeley.com/profiles/martin-fenner/ references a linkurl:story;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57689/ on citation mutations that appeared on linkurl:www.the-scientist.com;http://www.the-scientist.com/ last week (16th September):__
Dear Martin Fenner,
I fully agree that this study is only an initial and somewhat anecdotal evaluation of citation mutants. My analysis has been limited to very few of the total number of citation variants of Laemmli's article. In fact, the exact number of variants could not be determined accurately using my approach. To obtain an estimate of the number of citation variants, I have searched the ISI database for the author's name, the journal and the year of publication (Laemmli, __Nature__, 1970). Any mutations located within these search terms have escaped detection. Such mutations can only be found by searching for a specific error. In this way I could, for instance, identify the variants Aemmli, __Science__ and 1907.
As regards the stage at which mutations occur during the publication process, the distribution of the citation variants may offer some insights. For example, the page number mutation 680→777 has been limited to a few articles on closely related topics. Since these articles also cite one another, it is most likely that the authors have transmitted the mutation by copying the wrong citation from a previous article. In contrast, the mutation 680→681 appears more randomly across disciplinary boundaries, indicating that spontaneous typing errors are the primary cause. The incidence of this mutation has dropped from about 20 annual cases throughout the nineties to fewer than 10 in the last decade, possibly due to the wider use of reference management software.
There are other examples in which the errors have clearly not been committed by the authors. For instance, the rate of the 680→685 mutation has risen sharply from fewer than 5 events per year during the early nineties to currently about 600 yearly events. In 2008 the mutations even exceeded the number of correct citations, according to the ISI database. Upon closer inspection, however, the majority of the listed articles do not carry the mutation, pointing to a systematic error at the database level.
As to their phenotype, most citation variants are probably silent mutations due to the redundancy of the contained information. However, the fact that citation variants can be inherited may be an indication for a much bigger problem, which is that authors often do not read the publications cited in their work. I can only speculate how this would affect the accuracy of their interpretations.
Christian G. Specht is a neurobiologist working on learning & memory and currently based at the ENS in Paris.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Opinion: Mutations of citations;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57689/
[16th September 2010]*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]