Citation amnesia: The results

Citing past scientific work in present-day research papers can be a slippery business. Contributions from competing labs can be glossed over, pertinent studies accidentally left out, or similar research not mentioned in an attempt to give the study at hand a sheen of novelty. We at __The Scientist__ often hear complaints from our readers concerning what they regard as either honest or purposeful omissions in the reference lists of high-profile scientific papers. So we conducted a linkurl:study;

Jun 25, 2009
Bob Grant
Citing past scientific work in present-day research papers can be a slippery business. Contributions from competing labs can be glossed over, pertinent studies accidentally left out, or similar research not mentioned in an attempt to give the study at hand a sheen of novelty. We at __The Scientist__ often hear complaints from our readers concerning what they regard as either honest or purposeful omissions in the reference lists of high-profile scientific papers. So we conducted a linkurl:study;http://www.the-scientist.com/citationamnesia/survey/ of our own to try and quantify the prevalence of these types of slights and ask our readers how the problem might be fixed.
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Indeed, the vast majority of the survey's roughly 550 linkurl:respondents;http://www.the-scientist.com/citationamnesia/results/ -- 85% -- said that citation amnesia in the life sciences literature is an already-serious or potentially serious problem. A full 72% of respondents said their own work had been regularly or frequently ignored in the citations list of subsequent publications. Respondents' explanations of the causes range from maliciousness to laziness. "It certainly shows a lot of frustration out there," Geoffrey Bilder, director of strategic initiatives at the UK-based non-profit association CrossRef, said of the survey results and the accompanying anonymous comments which respondents were encouraged to leave. The root of this frustration is likely twofold, Bilder told __The Scientist__. First, there is such a vast and growing body of scientific literature in existence that authors have an increasingly difficult job of finding and citing all the published work that relates to their own research. With modern indexing and search technologies, publishers and the publishing community may be able to help scientists accomplish the Herculean task of combing the literature. "The joke I tell is that if you can help researchers avoid reading, you're going to make a lot of money," Bilder said. But there's also a certain "perversion" at play in the citation practices of some authors, Bilder said. "We have this naive notion that a citation is a vote." Because so much of a scientific author's worth is encapsulated in the raw numerical heft of his or her citation record, some researchers purposefully avoid citing colleagues with whose work or viewpoints they disagree. "The hidden motivation here is that [authors] don't want to give it any more prominence or any more of a vote than they have to." One of the themes to emerge in respondents' comments was simple resentment. "Competitors willfully exclude references to my work and no one, even other colleagues, can do anything about it," one respondent wrote. "Papers published in lower impact factor journals are presumed to be second rate and ignoring/disregarding them is easy," wrote another. One commenter suggested that "several papers in prominent journals including __Cell__ would not have been accepted if the [past] work was cited." One early-career scientist described his harsh baptism in the dog-eat-dog world of scientific publishing. "I only have 1 first author paper, and it was recently published (Jan 2009, online)," the commenter wrote. "It has already been passed over for citations by the most recent articles, even though it was very much on topic." Another commenter wrote that the main perpetrators of citation amnesia seem to be seasoned researchers, "'big guns' who apparently feel it is safe to appropriate the work of lesser workers because the journal editors will protect them. Only junior people ever get nailed." Some commenters felt that American scientific authors tend not to recognize the contributions of their colleagues across the pond. "Especially in the US there is a trend to cite only papers of fellow citizens," one wrote. "American clinical researchers tend not to read, or at least not to cite publications in European journals," wrote another. Other survey respondents pointed to less salacious causes of the problem, noting requests from editors to winnow down the citation lists or difficulties slogging through databases. "We searched hard for papers that were relevant to our novel finding and could not find anything," one respondent wrote. "We missed one that was apparently too new to be found in PubMed when we were writing our paper." Some element of the problem may be unavoidable, simply because of the sheer number of papers out there. "Nobody can cite all relevant papers all the time; there are simply too many of them," one commenter wrote. "I do cite a reasonable selection of relevant papers and I don't try to pass off other peoples' ideas as my own." At least one commenter railed against the importance of citing past work at all. "I think there is too much emphasis on history," the respondent wrote. "To cite the original paper can be a waste of time for the reader who wants a recent relevant summary rather than an 'honour' for the initial scientist." As for curing the problem of improper or missing citations, our survey respondents seemed evenly split between several possibilities suggested in the survey: raising awareness, random checks, removing editorial restrictions on citation numbers, signing a pledge, or including citations in online supplementary information. But several offered their own solutions. "Referees can and should make editors and authors aware of poor citations," a commenter wrote. "This should be cause to refuse acceptance." Another commenter proposed early training. "The practice of good citation etiquette should be taught in college, if not earlier," he or she wrote. "Most students want to cite a review article and call it a day." Still another, meanwhile, suggested this very idea to avoid inadvertent citation omissions: "When there are many relevant papers, I've tried to find a review article that cites them," he or she wrote. Part of the solution, though, may lie in changing how citations are formatted. "I suggest to include a list of references as PubMed IDs, so all citations of a paper can be downloaded (at least as citations and URLs to pdfs) in bulk," one respondent wrote. Bilder agreed that revising citation formatting could go a long way toward easing frustration surrounding the issue in the scientific community. "We could make it more informative and certainly more efficient," he said. Bilder said that by displaying only the minimum essential information -- author names, publication years, and numerical identifiers such as DOIs or PMIDs -- publishers could make room for more citations. "That would give you enough information to recognize what [authors] were talking about if you're familiar with the literature, and if not, to locate [the referenced work]." he said. Bilder also suggested borrowing a formatting trick from citations that appear in the legal literature -- in particular, the parts of those citations called "signals," which indicate why a particular work is being cited. Signals specify whether the citing author includes a particular citation as a comparison, a contrast, or an example of the point being made. Bilder said that scientific publications could adopt signals in their citations to make citing previous work more clear cut than appearing as a simple endorsement. "Then the different kinds of citations could be treated differently," he said. But University of Chicago sociologist linkurl:James Evans;http://sociology.uchicago.edu/people/faculty/evans.shtml noted that some degree of citation amnesia may not be such a bad thing, as it may be indicative of a healthy level of competition for funding and recognition in the field. "At some level, people fundamentally think that their work is important," Evans told __The Scientist__. "It needs to be that way." Evans, who studies the relationship between markets and science, said that scientists design research projects anticipating that their findings will form the hub of a larger network of subsequent research, and that this expectation makes for good science. "We want people to be gambling and to try to pick the project that they feel will be at the center of this network," he said. "My guess is that if you looked across scientific areas," he added, "in really crowded research areas lots of people are not going to get cited. And in the most crowded areas, people would feel the most neglected." However the life science and/or publishing communities choose to address problems with citation practice, researchers that publish their work should steel themselves for some disappointment down the road. "I have learned to have a thick skin," one survey respondent wrote.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Citation Violations;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55627/
[May 2009]*linkurl:Critics rip Cell paper;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55240/
[25th November 2008]*linkurl:Demand Citation Vigilance;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/12829/
[21st January 2002]*linkurl:The Ethics Of Citation: A Matter Of Science's Family Values;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/17598/
[9th June 1997]