Thursday, September 20, 2007

Onset of Conventional Wisdom

This week I am reviewing a manuscript about a topic that is near-and-dear to me. The authors cite some of my recent papers on this topic, but not the 'original' paper that seems most obvious to cite in the context of the manuscript under review. There is even one sentence that is essentially identical to one in the uncited paper. The authors use a synonym for one key word, but the sentence is otherwise the same.

This is not a lament or complaint about inadequate referencing or plagiarism or my bruised ego or the infinitesimal loss to my citation index.

The lack of citation, however, makes me wonder at which point an idea or body of work becomes so accepted that referencing it seems absurd or pointless.

For example, in the case of the sentence that the manuscript's authors (barely) modified from one in my old paper, one could argue that the sentence in the earlier paper states something that is now obvious -- that is, it states something that has become so widely accepted that a reference is no longer needed. Perhaps the manuscript authors are young and so an idea published in ancient times (i.e., 5 years ago) is old news? I don't know, but since I clearly remember a time when this 'old' paper represented a change in the way people thought about this topic (and since I am not objective in this particular case), perhaps I am not quite ready to think of the work as conventional wisdom yet.

I bet if I looked at my own papers in terms of what statements I think require a citation and which don't, there might well be a dividing line corresponding to the time at which I started writing papers (graduate school). Surely everything before then had long been known, but anything since then is a 'new' idea?

In my review, I am not going to advise the authors to cite my paper. They have clearly read it and been positively influenced by it, and I will content myself with the warm and fuzzy feeling that gives me and with the knowledge that it is better to have one's work become 'conventional wisdom' (however briefly) than to be ignored and dismissed.


Anonymous said...

Actually I think you should require that they cite that paper. I am young, but I am also surprised at how often people assume that either a (relatively) new idea is long-established, or, on the other hand, how their smoking-hot new idea could never possibly have been thought of before.

That said, if you have a body of work spanning 5-10 papers that shaped the understanding of a field, then you should write (or should have written) at least one review article on it. Then you will get fewer citations per article, but it makes the citing much more compact. It also consolidates your impact.

Douglas Natelson said...

The citation problem is exacerbated in Science, Nature, and their ilk, since they cap the total number of references at 30....

Kate said...

I agree that you should consider asking them to cite your paper, ESPECIALLY with the two sentences you mention that are similar to ones you have published. Whether or not it's ill-intentioned or unintentional or conventional wisdom, it also happens to be plagiarism. And it would be nice to nip that little tendency (again, whether or not conscious or intentional) in the bud.

Anonymous said...

I had to chuckle at the idea some young-uns have that five year old papers are "ancient". Some of the seminal papers in my field were published in 1909.

momo said...

I'd make them cite your paper, or modify the sentence, because otherwise someone else may accuse them of plagiarism if there is only one word of difference.
Besides, if we don't stick up for our work, who will?

Mr. B. said...

Merely mentioning that the sentence: "blah, blah, blah..." is suspiciously similar to the sentence: "blah, blech, blah" in the paper by xyz may solve your problem.

Then they have to quote, paraphrase, or delete. The first two options would require citation.

Don't be bashful...



Ms.PhD said...

I'm always in favor of citation, regardless of how old the work is. How else can anyone learn by questioning the assumptions or limitations of the techniques? It's really important for everyone, but especially students, to always read the original work. Twenty years from now, some little anomaly that you thought was due to X might turn out to be due to Y, the foundation of a whole new field, only brought to light in retrospect.

Conventional wisdom, even if it's your work (and therefore I have faith in it based on nothing other than reading your blog!), usually leads to assumptions, which leads to stagnation or even misdirection of research. It's a very dangerous practice to omit the reference.

I very much dislike the citation practices doug mentions, at Science, Nature, etc. for that reason. The ONLY way to get a reference list that short and still get it published in a journal like that is to rely heavily on accepted dogma as shorthand.

I agree that writing a review is a good idea if you haven't done so on this topic.

Drugmonkey said...

one of my possibly old-fashioned laments about bioscience manuscript writing is that the scholarship is so pathetic. The citing should be done correctly, be informative and you should hold them to a standard. If there is a good reason to cite the first paper over the subsequent ones, make 'em do it.

My belief is that each paper should be written essentially for the eager-beaver but early career graduate student. In other words it should have the links back into the essential background literature for them to follow. It doesn't have to be a review article but it should have a decent amount of information... as I said, a possibly old-fashioned view.

mike3550 said...

There is a really interesting chapter in Bruno Latour's Science in Action that discusses this idea. He discusses how academic writing uses citations to build support for arguments, which citations are perfunctory and, ultimately, when something becomes so widely accepted that the paradigm has shifted (from Thomas Kuhn) and becomes "common knowledge." He basically argues that something is common knowledge when authors feel they gain no rhetorical advantage in making their argument by engaging the paper in question. If everyone accepts it as the truth, why potentially weaken one's argument by potentially mis-citing it or retreating to a previous debate in which the contemporary author does not want to engage.

It was one of the most interesting reads on my preliminary exam reading list (in sociology) particularly for discussing how important rhetoric is in the development of scientific knowledge and how that knowledge is created. But, also as a grad student, I find it frustrating when authors do not cite seminal works because it is very difficult to gain a grasp on the literature which I am expected to know (until I mis-cite conclusions because I didn't know to read that particular seminal work).