Yesterday I ranted a bit about a lame way that some reviewers try to sink a manuscript by making unsupported/unreferenced claims that there is nothing new in the manuscript. This reminded me of an issue that is related to what I called we-already-knew-thatism. And that is:
When does something become Common Knowledge that (almost) everyone really does know, and therefore no citations are necessary, and when does an 'old' concept still require a citation?
I talked about some aspects of this a while ago (Onset of Conventional Wisdom), but, as happens from time to time, I seem to have more to say on the topic.
There are certain statements that I think everyone would agree need no citation. If, for example, it is somehow relevant to your research that the Earth is not flat, you likely don't need to provide references to support the concept of a non-flat Earth.
Other statements would have required a citation during an earlier time, but at some point most people stopped providing citations because the concept became Common Knowledge. That's the situation that interests me today.
We interrupt this blog to say that as I was typing that last paragraph, a grad student wandered into my office to complain about a paper in which the author didn't cite other people's work in his discussion, as if he (the author) was taking credit for everything or as if the other people's work was Common Knowledge, even though (in my student's opinion), it isn't.
What is the typical time range for the evolution of a concept from citation-required to everyone-knows-that/no citation required? Is there a typical time range?
Probably not, but if I had to guess a typical time range, I would say about 12-15 years, corresponding approximately to the time from an academic's grad school days to the point at which they become wise and all-knowing. A more realistic answer, however, would be that the time range also varies with the fame of the person who published the original papers on the concept of interest. In this case, the concept of fame includes other elements that contribute to or hinder one's ascent to galactic academic fame (nationality, gender, academic pedigree) and therefore neverending citation nirvana.
Another factor is related indirectly to what I discussed yesterday: If someone manages to publish a paper on something that is instantly obvious -- as in, something that makes so much sense but no one had said it that clearly before or no one had bothered to publish it before or there was a breakthrough that explained something rather fundamental but perhaps not surprising -- I think those types of concepts very quickly become Common Knowledge because it is difficult for us to imagine a time when the issue was in doubt. Then, although the author may have done a great service to the community by explaining or clarifying an important puzzle or issue, the citations might trail off pretty quickly after publication.
Such is (academic) life, I suppose. I certainly can't say that the papers I write never contain uncited statements that should be cited, but one thing I do when editing my students' manuscripts is to indicate uncited statements that I think need a reference. It's good to get into the habit of being aware of this issue early-on in your writing career. It's the right (fair) thing to do, and also, as my student's comment today showed, people might think you are a jerk if you are too sparse with the citations. It's probably best if you start your career without a reputation for being a jerk; you can always acquire that reputation later if you want to.
8 years ago