Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Can You Rephrase That?

As I was reviewing a manuscript recently, I saw this sentence:

.." and existing models to explain this phenomenon are inadequate [3].

[3] FSP 2001"

So, is my model inadequate or did my 2001 paper state that existing models were inadequate.. or both?

In fact, I couldn't even tell from the context of the rest of the paragraph or manuscript, which was clearly an undigested chunk of thesis. I am not even sure the citation is appropriate in this case, at least not without significant rewriting of the statement and surrounding text.

This issue was easy to deal with in a short review comment.

In two other recent manuscripts under review, I saw something like this:

"It has been proposed that dolphins strongly prefer scones to croissants [FSP 1996]."

and "It is well known that cats who fall out of a tree from a height of at least 8 meters are likely to fracture their back left leg [FSP et al., 2009]."

Thanks for the citations, but I never proposed or stated either of those things, although I know at least one of them to be true.

Those problems were easy to deal with as well. I wrote that the citations were inappropriate, as I had never discussed dolphin pastry preference or cat/tree issues, at least not in print.

I am sure that I have mis-cited references before, too, especially in long papers with lots of references and lots of co-authors. We hope that such things will be caught in review, but in some cases they are not. As a reviewer, it's easy to catch mis-citations of work we know well (i.e., our own) but we aren't always familiar with every citation in every paper.

In another recent example, an author mis-cited (in my opinion) another author (not me). I hesitated to make a comment in my review, though, because the mis-cited author was a co-author of the manuscript under review. Shouldn't he be the one to remove the mis-citation? I was quite confident that the citation was inappropriate, so I made a gentle remark about this in my review, and the citation was not removed.

I like being cited, of course, but I don't like being mis-cited. It would bother me a lot if someone thought I really had proposed that dolphins prefer scones if I had, in fact, never said that. This is not just my being ethical, although, like most of my professorial readers, I have received intensive and largely irrelevant training in the responsible conduct of research. My objections mostly stem from my dislike of being misquoted or misrepresented.

Not to obsess about citation indices (too much), but despite the possible of loss of a (mis)citation, it is possible that fixing these errors in review might ultimately lead to more citations, not fewer. For example, if someone cited my work as having said something really stupid about dolphin/scone preferences, this might discourage future readers (and citations).

Does anyone cynically believe that the increased emphasis on citation indices increases the number of mis-citations, either because authors are more eager to cite their own papers (even if not entirely appropriate) or because reviewers are less likely to correct mis-citations of their own work?


zed said...

I doubt it. I think increased mis-citation is just due to rushed manuscript preparation and cursory reading of the literature. The very first citation of a recent paper of mine said EXACTLY the opposite of the main point of my paper. As in, the title was "Recent declines in cupcake consumption by dolphins" and they cited us as "Dolphins are eating more cupcakes now than ever before". In this case I would definitely rather not have that citation.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how one can point out to authors these mistakes without revealing one's identity.

Nicole said...

I mis-cited someone recently and got called on it. So embarrassing!

What happened was a paragraph got condensed into a sentence and the sentence remained more specific than it should have been. ("X, Y, and Z found this phenomenon in older grey dolphins" ... when X looked at all dolphins in general and Z was looking at all marine animals.) I wanted to curl up in a little hole.

Anonymous said...

I think it will result in more citations. When I was writing my thesis I was so afraid to mis-cite that I went way overboard. My thesis had more than a thousand papers cited. Of the thousand papers I only read in depth about 25, I skimmed 50, I read the intro/figures/conclusions of 75 and glanced (at most) at the rest.

Anonymous said...

That is pretty cynical! I'm more inclined to believe that the mis-citations are either due to misinterpretation of the paper directly, or basing the citation on its reference in another paper (without reading the original) and misinterpreting for that reason. Regarding your first example - that is why I frequently use e.g. in front on references, as in "here's an example of an overly simplified model" rather than "here's someone who says models are oversimplified." However, I rarely notice anyone else using e.g. I don't know why.

Namnezia said...

I think that many people do not real all of the references they cite and often might copy already mis-cited references from other papers.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this has much to do with increased emphasis on citation indices. Didn't your poll awhile back indicate that most people have no idea what their h-index is? I think mis-citations have always been a problem, and I'm not sure that the number of mis-citations have increased.

In any case, I would have handled it exactly the way you did. There is too much incorrect "conventional wisdom" out there, precisely because of mis-citations and people not checking the original literature.

Anonymous said...

(Anonymous because my publication list is short enough to make this fairly obvious.)

I had someone cite a paper and rather badly misconstrue my main result (it was a much weaker claim than the citer stated). Fortunately I knew the reviewer of this subsequent paper and was asked to assist in the review; we tried to phrase a reviewer's comment that didn't destroy anonymity too badly but it was ignored and I am now in the literature as having said something I didn't.

The most immediate antidote to this nonsense is to be sure to read, at least superficially, everything one cites, so the citation is based on the content instead of somebody else's citation! There are certain papers in my field with very high citation counts that I doubt get read nearly as often as they are cited. I'm not sure what else can be done...require citation by line? require cited authors to concur? try to stiffen up the review process and hope that norms change? Reviewing a paper is enough of a pain without closely reading EVERY citation, but I do wind up reading several I'm not familiar with. I doubt I'd catch every error of this type.

Anonymous said...

I will be the first to admit, I read less than 10% of the papers I cite.

Anonymous said...

As an editor (who gets to see referee identities as well as which papers they are correcting), I can say that - in my experience - it's not possible to conclude that anytime a referee corrects a citation to Scientist X's paper, it means that the referee is Scientist X. Of course that happens sometime, but any referee who is closely relevant to the topic at hand is capable of catching both egregious and subtle misinterpretations of prior work. The point: please feel free to correct mis-citations without outing yourself.

Anonymous said...

Citations of only peripherally relevant work and attaching citations to sentences that disagree with the main results of the cited work are both quite common. They are usually the result of pressure to have enough citations in a paper and not accidentally overlook some important person or prior work, even though the prior work was never read. I've been guilty of that myself---needing a citation for something that was "common knowledge" I quickly searched for and found apparently relevant articles without reading them carefully.

Totally irrelevant mis-citations bother me, as do made up citations. On Google Scholar, I found some citations to papers supposedly written by me, but in journals I never published in, with volume numbers not consistent with the journal. Citing my published work would have been appropriate---clearly someone just made up a citation rather than looking up the paper. That bothers me much more than adding an irrelevant but correct citation would.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people get sensitive if they aren't cited sufficiently, so in my writing sometimes I err on the side of citing too many people just to try to avoid upsetting anybody. I think I am careful to make my citations accurate (even if they are sometimes a little marginally relevant) but I can see how it would be easy for me to end up misciting a work I wasn't very familiar with.

Venkat said...

I'd say:
" existing models to explain this phenomenon are inadequate [3]." should mean that your paper stated that existing models were inadequate.
" existing models [3] to explain this phenomenon are inadequate." should mean that your model is inadequate.

" existing models to explain this phenomenon are inadequate [3].

[3] FSP 2001"

So, is my model inadequate or did my 2001 paper state that existing models were inadequate.. or both?

Jean Grey said...

I don't think that increased emphasis on citation indices is the direct cause of mis-citations.

At least I hope not.

I think it's pure laziness that causes so many mis-citations. It's really not that hard to actually read papers and pull out key points and make sure your damn references are in the right place, is it? No.

You might be able to tell that this is one of my pet peeves. I reviewed a paper recently that was horribly referenced and I very bluntly pointed this out in my review. The authors not only managed to mis-cite their own previous work (purposefully or not I will never know) and at least 10 other papers, but they even went on to make conclusions about their data based on mis-citations, similar to what FSP describes. The best part, though, was leaving out citations for the papers that described the same exact experiment but came to a different conclusion. Seriously?

Further, the authors only corrected the specific mis-citations that I pointed out, despite my general comment about the poor referencing throughout. Who knows what and how many mistakes made it to the final version...

Maybe I put too much emphasis on citations, who knows. But it frustrates the shit out of me when I'm trying to read a paper and find that the references are all bad. Not only that, but if I'm reviewing a paper that's in my general area but that's written about a system on which I have little or no prior knowledge, of course I'm going to read the papers referenced in your manuscript so that I can make comments based on relevant literature. And if you poorly reference your manuscript and make my job as a reviewer that much more time consuming because I have to hunt down the papers that you really should have cited, I'm not going to be in a good mood when I write your review.

As for anonymity issues, I would point out mis-citations regardless of whether or not the papers in question were mine. The paper that I mentioned above did not reference any of my work but the authors had no clue one way or the other. You're just doing your job as a reviewer, and if you find a mistake, you should bring it to their attention.

PS - If you get a review back and it contains bitchy reference comments, it's probably me! :)

Psycgirl said...

I hate when someone cites me and says I made a conclusion I didn't make. It makes me feel like all the hard work I put into that paper was totally lost on them.

(And I have to resist emailing them to say - wtf? I didn't make that claim!)

Alex said...

If you want to correct a mis-citation of your own work, you don't have to say "I wrote it and what I really meant was..." just say that you checked some of the references and the authors clearly need to read more carefully.

As to how many of the citations you should read, ideally of course you should read all of them carefully. In reality, though, there are papers that you read thoroughly many times, papers that you read once, and papers that you mostly skimmed and focused on a few key figures. It's appropriate to cite any of those, as long as you are only citing them for information that you actually digested and understood. Citing anything else, IMHO, is dangerous. OTOH, I know that some fields have cultures that really expect you to cite anything and everything that has any relevance to the work, and I guess that in those fields it's unreasonable to expect every author on the paper to be equally familiar with all 200 references.

I freely admit I cite selectively, citing papers that make the point I'm trying to make. If there are several such papers, I cite the ones that have the most careful analysis, the most important insights, and/or the ones that are easiest for the reader to understand. I'm not citing to pay homage to all of my predecessors, I'm citing to help the reader understand what I'm trying to say.

Rosie Redfield said...

I think that citing papers one hasn't read verges on scientific misconduct. We don't need to carefully read every page, but we should at least check to be sure that the paper does say what we're claiming it does.

EliRabett said...

It's not so much the h numbers as the availability of End Note and the way in which you can transfer everything from Web of Science, etc.

That and the hissy fit the referees throw if you don't include their papers as references. So you include everything, and since you need an anchor for every cite you, kinda, write stuff.

Anonymous said...

In a paper (for a class) that I was peer-reviewing recently, the author said that "Dolphins prefer scones to cupcakes [Delphinus, 2009]." Now I'd read the Delphinus paper and knew that the scones v. cupcakes issue hadn't come up much (if at all), so I pulled the paper up and read it. As it turned out, the Delphinus abstract said, "In light of recent studies showing that dolphins prefer scones to cupcakes..." Clearly, the author hadn't read the paper at all--only the abstract.

I've noticed that a number of abstracts contain info which is only peripherally mentioned in the text but also gloss over things which are covered in detail in the body of the paper. I wonder how many miscitations are due to this?

Tim said...

it's the shared responsibility of the writing author, the co-authors, and the peer reviewers. Mistakes happen, its not misconduct.

Personally, if someone cites me, they can say whatever they want, because whenever it's being scrutinized they will have to go to the source.

Anonymous said...

Earlier this year I wrote a paper that said, essentially, "the standard recipe for doing computations in Important Model fails to take into account a key effect, and should not be trusted." Since then people using this recipe have mostly chosen to ignore my paper, but a few of them cite it. The citations always come in the form of a sentence saying: "Many recent papers have examined how to do computations in Important Model using the standard recipe (refs 1 - 19)," with my paper buried as reference 13 and never mentioned again. It's frustrating, but I don't know what to do about it.

A Researcher said...

One bizarre tendency that I find rather annoying is taking a single, highly specific study to back up a very general statement. I have a paper in Cetacean Reports, where we've shown that black and grey dolphins live on scones, while white dolphins eat croissants. This has become a surprise citation hit, with citing papers published from Flagship Journal of Dolphinology to East-Greenland Oil Rig Quarterly. Most citations are either "dolphins eat pastry (AR 2007)" or "scones are important to dolphins (AR 2007)", while some say "dolphins can suffer tooth decay since they eat pastry (AR 2007)" - i.e., very obviously in the places where you just state what everyone knows anyway, but you have to put in a reference, any reference. Why pick a single empirical study in a small journal while there are plenty of excellent reviews on both scones and tooth decay, is beyond me. But I must admit that it has encouraged me to self-cite it in places where I otherwise wouldn't have.

Anonymous said...

My "favorite" is when pure conjecture by one author gets turned into a statement of fact in citation.

"We hypothesize that Dolphins prefer scones due to increased sweetness over croissants, but further experimental studies are needed to demonstrate this."

becomes in the citation,
"Dolphins prefer scones due to their high sugar content (Jones and Bagelsworth 1987)"

Even "better" is when both papers are by the same author... :/

muddled postdoc said...

I see a lot of mis-citing where an author has cited a high profile paper/journal which has little to do with what he/she is referring to, but has been written by an author/co-author of an actually relevant paper. I am not sure what the thinking behind this is? I see this several times in papers that are published and discover the mis-cites when I go look up the reference. I then have to search around a bit more to find the actual reference they are talking about.

I recently had something like that happen to me as well. There was statement saying something like "dolphins prefer scones"[1]
[1] Big name,DEF,muddled grad ... High profile journal
But in actuality [muddled grad, et al lower journal] actually deals with the dolphins preference of scones and [1] deals with how to train dolphins and say nothing about the preference to scones or any other baked goods.

Ms.PhD said...

One of my former advisors deliberately mis-cites his own previous papers, and those of his favored trainees, when it suits his purpose. They love to cite themselves as having shown things they actually only proposed, or having proposed things that were actually proposed by others. They're very clever about choosing titles and abstracts to support their future mis-citations, since that's all most people read anyway.