Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Read Me?

Some comments to yesterday's post reminded me of something I have been wondering:

If you are the (or a) major author on a paper submitted for review, how many of the references you cite have you read?

My adviser in graduate school told me that I should read every article that I cite. Minor co-authors can use their discretion about which ones to read/not read, but if you're the main author, you should read all cited works.

I think we can assume that 'read' means that you read more than the abstract but didn't necessarily spend hours poring over every word in every section, although you may well have done so, especially for a thesis.

So: For articles (or the moral equivalent) on which you are what could reasonably be considered a major author according to the norms of your field:

How many of the articles you cite do you read?
100%
75% or more but not every one
50-75%
somewhat less than 50%
less than 25% but not zero
zero or close to zero
pollcode.com free polls

41 comments:

ProfWhoLovesResearch said...

Not read a paper that's relevant to my own area of research? Perish the thought!

Gosh, I love reading papers! I love my subject! I love reading papers in my subject are! It sounds geeky, but I really do.

How could I not read a paper in my subject area? How could I fail to read a paper that's relevant to my research? (And why would I cite it if it's not relevant?) Unthinkable....

Did I mention that I love reading papers on research problems I'm interested in? Yes, I'm serious. Seriously, it's one of the best parts about being a researcher and an academic. I hope I never lose my enjoyment of reading papers.

The really best part is learning a new area. You get to read the very best of the best papers in that area -- the classics. Man, that rocks.

(OK, I admit, I might very rarely fail to read a paper I cite, if it's on a topic I don't care about, but some reviewer might think is relevant to the work I'm currently doing. Occasionally. But it's pretty rare.)

(I have to admit that when your read a lot of papers, you end up reading a lot of crummy papers. Quite commonly I read a crummy paper, throw it across the room in disgust, then pick it up again, admit that I guess it does have some redeeming quality somewhere, cite it for the good points, and only then throw it in the trash: good riddance. I might have read all of the papers that I cited -- but that doesn't necessarily mean I was awfully impressed with all of them.)

mOOm said...

I do look at almost all papers I cite to at least check that I am citing them correctly in terms of content. It seems irresponsible not to do that. In the pre-electronic age I checked out fewer of the papers I cited. But now there is not a lot of excuse.

Anonymous said...

To be fair only a portion of the articles that I've read gets cited but if I haven't read an article I don't cite it. To be honest there is no point in citing papers that may or may not be relevant, unless of course you've read it and KNOWS that it is relevant.

Anonymous said...

I can't even bring myself to take the poll because I have very strong feelings that the first author should read every single damn paper, and yet ... sometimes I let one slip in that I haven't read ....

Anonymous said...

I feel that a citation crisis is emerging in some fields. For example, a couple of year ago there was a paper entitled "Two phase cat formation" (with a few follow ups with similar titles), while recently there was another one called "The two phases of cat formation". They address the same thing with different methods, but the latter fails to cite the former. Perhaps FSP could tell us about her experiences/opinions/thoughts on this sort of thing in another post.

Jen said...

I'm in the >75% category. My graduate PI expected us to read every paper we cited in our publications (we would have to sometimes justify why we included a particular reference, and would get raked over the coals if we omitted "obvious" references). During the final edit of the last paper published from my dissertation, my PI added several papers to support a point he added to the discussion, but didn't tell me about them until after the paper was submitted.

Female Science Professor said...

If you try really hard to read everything you cite, but there might be one that slips through every now and then, I think you can reasonably check "100%" in the poll.

Anonymous said...

I work on some interdisciplinary stuff, where we tend to split up sections like the intro by area of expertise. So, no, on my first author paper, I didn't read more than the abstract for some of the papers cited in the intro. I trusted my colleagues had read them and were citing properly, of course.

I'd never personally cite a paper that I hadn't at least skimmed.

Anonymous said...

I try to read almost all of the papers that I cite. I admit, though, that sometimes I don't read things as thoroughly as I should; often, if I read the abstract and skim the introduction and conclusions of a paper, I'll think "ah, that makes sense, I understand why they got that result" -- and I'll read no further. This occasionally leads to embarrassing conversations where I'll tell someone I read their paper on X, they'll bring up something surprising they found in the course of it, and I'll suddenly realize I didn't actually read their entire paper, I just assumed I knew what its contents were.

PLW said...

Most of my papers are partnerships in which each of the (usually two) authors brings a different competence. I generally read the ~50% that relate to my competence and about The 25% that are mostly his/her competence but closest to mine. I expect s/he to do the same. For use both to read 100% is a waste of time, and make take a ton of extra work (if s/he or I would need to acquire new skills to really understand them)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I usually only put in citations for papers I've read, but sometimes co-authors add papers that they have read and I haven't. Sometimes, when I realize I've said something that needs support (though "everybody knows that"), I look for a reasonable supporting document, which I may not read completely---just check that it does make the claim I think needed a citation.

Hypothetical Engineer said...

I read everything that *I* cite. If coauthors want to add something in to the references I may not always have time to read them thoroughly, or sometimes more than just the abstract. I trust my coauthors to not add any citations that do not belong. The majority of the time I try to at least give the citations they add a quick once through to make sure I am familiar with the reasons they were cited. Also if a coauthor felt it necessary to add that citation, it probably is at least somewhat important or relevant to my research and so it usually goes on my To Read list if nothing else.

Anonymous said...

There were 220 papers in PubMed one of my labs two current areas of research since Jan. 2009.

I did not read all of them.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I don't even read all of the papers I am co-author on. I am co-author on 30-40 papers a year, I just produce data, give a summary abou the data, attend the meetings for paper/grant submission and move on.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the methodological paper (published long ago) that produced the background coefficients that everyone using a certain analytical technique uses... but we all cite that paper.

Anonymous said...

There are a few papers in my field that are considered "the authority" on a particular method or technique. Authors will reference them appropriately when using the same technique in their own research, but the technique is now taught to the younger generations by example rather than having them delve into the literature to learn it.

Thinkerbell said...

"I don't even read all of the papers I am co-author on..."

I think that's much worse than not reading the last 1% of papers you cite. If you can't make the time to read the stuff, why put your name on it?

I checked 75% in your poll, because I do what others reported as well: in some cases I only skim to find (and make sure) that paper X really makes claim Y so I can cite it in support of a statement I make. I will not get the ultimate ins and out of that paper, but I do always make sure that I am not citing duds.

Anonymous said...

The poll isn't even about co-authors who stick their name on tens of papers a year because they provide some data. The poll is about what you do if you are the major author on a paper and therefore presumably most responsible for everything in the paper.

Alex said...

So, I get the people who say that they don't necessarily read something that a co-author wants to cite, if the co-author is bringing techniques from a different field.

I still think I'd give my co-author's reference a quick skim, for due diligence, though. I'm not saying you should devote an afternoon to dissecting every detail, but take a quick look to verify that it is saying what your co-worker interprets it as saying. Given the stories of mis-citation being posted here over the last few days, it's probably not safe to bet that your co-authors are as careful as you insist everyone should be. Trust, but verify.

If it's truly outside your expertise, you may not be able to read it with 100% confidence, but you can at least catch obvious mistakes like the co-author who says "Oh, yes, Smith's 2002 study is what we want to cite here" when in fact the 2002 study was on something else and your co-author got it confused with the 2001 study.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the "initial" paper is very hard to find because it's too old... So I cite it and I know its content trough other papers; but I just can't read it.

Anonymous said...

I am in a mathematical area, so thoroughly reading and understanding papers are hard; some papers can take weeks to fully digest. When I say read for the purposes of citation, I usually mean read the introduction, and understand what the main result says. Usually that's what the paper is cited based on anyway :-)

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I voted 100%, but I'd like to make a caveat. I'm in big science. Most of my papers have dozens of authors. Most of the rest have four or more.

So I read the question as pertaining to the citations in the part (section or paragraph) of the paper that addresses work or analysis that I was a major contributor to. For those limited sections I try to read each and every reference we're going to use (even ones introduced by collaborators that I hadn't seen before). Other parts of the paper may contain references which I haven't even glanced at.

BTW-- I'm with ProfHowLovesResearch about the seminal standbys. Going into the dusty, rolling-shelf stacks in the bottom of the library to read a paper that founded a whole sub-discipline can be the highlight of my week.

As for how you can not have read a paper with your name on it, that may be a big science thing. It's happened to me once. Some collaborators did a re-analysis of some data that I helped collect and calibrate ten years ago, and kept my name on the author list (hey, they were still using my calibration, so I think that's fair), but didn't get my name on the mailing list. So one day I looked on Spires and I had a new paper... And it's got dozens of citation at this point. Whoo hoo!

Anonymous said...

One of the issues in my field is courtesy citations: included to make someone happy, rather than for content. And I don't always read them.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the citation reason -- "courtesy" or otherwise -- should matter. If you cite it you should read it (or at least enough of it to know the citation is appropriate).

Tim said...

yesterday i submitted a paper as 1st author and 2 papers i have read, had contact with the author, and use now as my bible, i have completely and thoroughly read about 5 citations, skimmed about 15, and read the abstract of the others. :) am i a bad researcher now? Also, i cited one paper i thought was critical, but my stupid department doesnt subscribe to the journal and i could not get it. :D

Anonymous said...

I always try to read the papers that I cite but there are some times when the paper is critical, cannot be replaced, but is not accessible because it's in a foreign language or in gray literature (e.g. there are 3 copies of it in the world). If it's still considered a critical citation in my field, it gets cited even though I can't personally digest it.

Anonymous said...

At some point I did read all the the articles I cite. I may not re-read them each time of course if I'm only using them for intro, or as source of a specific datum....

Anonymous said...

Some old references are difficult to get, but it shouldn't be impossible. Someone must have a copy they could send you, or you can get one through a library. If the author is still alive, they might have a paper reprint to send you. I think there should be more effort made than just saying "My university doesn't have that journal so I don't have to read that paper even though I cite it." I discourage this type of thing in my students, so I try not to do it myself!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I collaborate with people who know much more about topic X than I do. So if my trusted senior collaborator says that some dense and technical 50 page article makes some minor point that we need to cite, I'm not going to dive into that just to check. At least not immediately.

I'd say I'm at 85%.

Anonymous said...

I work on interdisciplinary problems and am often writing synthetic works---this means that I cite very broadly from many fields. There is simply no possible way that a person could read all of the literature from all of the areas that I might draw on.

I do check that 100% of my citations are appropriate, but I don't usually need to truly read the paper to accomplish this. Very often I am citing a very specific point, e.g. the paper measured some quantity or is an example of some type of analysis. A large proportion of the things I cite should be found in the abstract and title of the paper---although I generally skim the rest of the paper to ensure they actually did the thing they promised in the abstract.

As for co-authors, I double check when I have time. But who has time? Mostly, I trust.

Anonymous said...

I'd say I read everything but then what does "read" mean? I check to make sure every paper says what I say it is saying but if for example I want to know that predator X eats species Y I may not read a paper that explores how habitat structure changes the foraging rate of X on Y - I look at the paper make sure X will eat Y - and I'm good. If it's a conceptual point I want to cite I'll read it more deeply but if it's some factual piece of info calling it reading might be a stretch.

unlikelygrad said...

@Tim:

Most academic libraries have ways of getting any article you want through a process similar to inter-library loan. At MyU, I order such articles using my library account (like I do when ordering a rare book), and then I get an email saying when they "come in." (The latter phrase is in quotations because they never physically come in--I "pick up" the time-limited PDF file from a link in the previously mentioned email.)

FemaleSciPostdoc said...

I would never feel comfortable citing a paper I have not read if I am the first/primary author. I feel a bit naive because I thought this was how most/all PI's operate. Well, this is something I can't bend on. If I'm the primary author it is my neck on the line if something isn't right with the paper, and a thorough literature review is part of that.

Anonymous said...

If the question was, how many relevant papers you've read but not cite, I would say 100%

Erika said...

Since I'm the kind that actually insists on digging up the original paper to verify that it says what it is "supposed" to say, it quickly became obvious to me that you can never trust what others claim that a particular paper says. Especially not if it is an important paper that "everyone" cites. Unfortunately it is necessary to be very suspicious in this matter.

Oh, and if you find yourself being publically humiliated for incorrectly citing a well known paper in your field, do not use the "but everyone else does it" defence! It will make you sound like a child, rather than like a professional adult ("but mommy, everyone else gets to have tattoos/smoke/go to that party...").

Rosie Redfield said...

Sometimes the "initial" paper is very hard to find because it's too old... So I cite it and I know its content through other papers; but I just can't read it.

In these and other cases where you can't read (or understand the language of) the original, you should use "cited by" in your reference, giving not only the original (unread) source but the secondary source you did read.

Pagan Topologist said...

Maybe mathematics is different, but I cite a paper when I make use of something proven in the paper, even if most of the paper cited is not relevant to what I am doing, or even is not comprehensible to me. To do otherwise would be plagarism. Sometimes, I have tried unsuccessfully to understand an author's argument, and have ended up creating my own proof, of something I need ot use, but I still reference the original paper in such a case.

Thomas Joseph said...

How can anyone cite something they haven't read? Yes Tim, I'm looking at you. You cited something as "critical" based on what criteria? Your reading of the title? The journal it was in? What?

The Alchemist said...

I think there should be a follow-up poll asking how thoroughly we read the references, I think that would be more interesting.

Much of the time I am using other references to compare values found in my studies. Usually, I take care to read the experimental section quite thoroughly, but there are often tangents in the the analysis section that are simply not relevant to the topic I am writing about. I am not terribly critical of those sections.

Dr Spouse said...

If I don't read a paper in its entirety, it's because a) I read the abstract and tried to get hold of the paper, but couldn't in the time, and am only quoting something that is definitely true from the abstract or b) because a co-author provided a quote and I trust them.

Anonymous said...

The convention in legal scholarship is quite different, with most articles solo authored and copious footnoting--usually hundreds and occasionally thousands of citations. I always read the portion of the book or article I am citing--and thank heavens for the speed of today's interlibrary loan compared to twenty years ago! One thing that keeps legal scholars honest, perhaps, is the legions of law review editors who obsessively check every cite. Once I had an editor quiz me on a pinpoint cite in footnote 400-something, wondering how the pages in question supported the text. Turns out he was right--I had mistyped the page numbers when doing my footnotes!