Opinion: Mutations of citations

Just like genetic information, citations can accumulate heritable mutations

Christian G. Specht
Sep 15, 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...
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.
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.
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