Tim Birkhead

January 4, 2008

A colleague of mine recently finished writing a textbook. As I leafed through the huge pile of page proofs on his desk, he told me how his publisher (an academic publisher no less) had asked him what all the pages at the end of the book were about. When the author explained that these were the references (that is, the bibliography), the publisher suggested that they should be omitted (and placed on the web) to reduce both the size and the price of the book. It took considerable persuasion to retain the references. Publishers perhaps can be forgiven for such naivete, but academics cannot.

Academics wouldn't consider omitting the references from their publications, but many are doing something nearly as bad: mis-citing the literature. A straw poll among biological scientists aged 50 or over confirmed my strong sense that younger researchers increasingly mis-cite the scientific literature. Typically, they might refer to a topic such as sexual selection (first enunciated by Darwin in 1871) but rather than citing Darwin, will refer instead to a recent paper by another author who happens to mention, however tangentially, sexual selection. A second kind of mis-citation is citing oneself, one's colleagues or members of one's intellectual clique, rather than citing the most appropriate reference.

There are several possible causes of mis-citation. First, some younger researchers simply do not know the rules. Second, they may know the rules but are unable to locate the literature, because it does not exist online and/or because the idea of visiting the library and taking a journal off the shelf is anathema. Third, the original source may somehow appear "old- fashioned" and therefore inappropriate. It is probably true that researchers have always been biased towards citing research done during their own career, but ignoring research done in previous generations misrepresents history.

Fourth, young researchers often say that there is too much literature and they cannot be expected to know it all. This is no excuse. It is hard keeping up with the literature, but knowing the literature is what being a researcher is all about. For well-known discoveries such as natural selection or the structure of DNA, the relevant references are also well known. But for many other areas, the most appropriate references are less obvious and may require effort to locate. Indolence is no excuse for mis- citation. Fifth, and perhaps most insidiously of all, some researchers deliberately fail to cite competitors' work to enhance the (apparent) novelty of their own work. All five of these causes seem to be part of a general erosion of scholarship in schools and universities.

Where are the rules of citation set out? I looked at three books I had to hand: an undergraduate study guide to science, a book on what science is and another on communicating science, all published in the past six years. Not one of them stated the rules for citation.

So what are they? The rule is that you cite the first reference to report a particular fact or concept, giving credit where credit is due. Sometimes, of course, it is not absolutely clear when a particular discovery was made, and the ludicrous extreme in biology (and much else) would be to trace everything back to Aristotle. The best strategy is to cite the original source, probably followed by a reference to a more recent review of the topic. What is neither appropriate nor acceptable is to cite a recent paper (not a review) that simply mentions the topic.

How are today's researchers supposed to know the rules? The obvious answer to this is through their undergraduate training, and if not, then through their postgraduate years. The fact that mis-citation is so widespread suggests that as university teachers we are failing to do this properly. This may be true, but what is perhaps worse is the widespread rewarding of mediocrity in education that allows undergraduates to get away without absorbing many of the attributes of being a good researcher.

Does it matter that researchers mis-cite the literature? Yes, it does. First, appropriate citation is the foundation of science. As the Nobel laureate Peter Medawar said, being first is what matters; there are no prizes for being the second person to discover something. Priority rules in science are written in stone; they form the bedrock of the entire enterprise. Verification by second and later "discoverers" is important, but being first is what matters. Researchers who make important discoveries should get due credit for their work, and it is those citations that determine a scientist's standing in the field. Mis-citation undermines the very process of scientific endeavour. Not citing the literature appropriately is poor scholarship and perverts history.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology, Sheffield University.

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