Getting your citations in order

Who loses out when a scholar fails to acknowledge earlier related work? Ron Iphofen on the evergreen virtues of desk research

January 14, 2016
David Humphries illustration (14 January 2016)
Source: David Humphries

I recently came across a journal article that in essence made the same argument as I had delivered in a plenary conference presentation. In the ordinary course of events I could attribute this to the coincidence of two researchers working in a similar field: hardly worth a dispute over priority. However, I recalled the author challenging my argument during the conference, and since I had referenced his work in a book I had written, in which the argument had been further developed, I reasoned he must have been aware of neglecting an attribution.

Now I know that failure to acknowledge is not as big a sin as outright plagiarism, but there is something disconcerting about it. Two related problems necessarily task academics. One confronts those who enter a new field: how to make sure to build on already existing developments and avoid unnecessary wheel reinvention. The answer – as all research students are told – is to do the desk research first.

The second, connected problem is how to be sure that future contributors are aware of what we have already achieved so that they, too, can build on existing knowledge. The answer is to seek out the most effective means to promote your conclusions.

Why might previous work go unnoticed or ignored? In the “olden days”, we had a reasonable excuse. The search machinery, for want of a better term, was inefficient and could not be comprehensive. I recall working in the old British Library Reading Room, leafing through reams of paper indexes in oak drawers to guess from a book title whether it related to my concerns. At other times the easiest solution was to patrol the relevant sections in my university library and “spine read”. Although it was laborious, I still recall the delight associated with the unexpected find: a book on a topic that surprised me and invariably sent me off course!

Then I discovered innovations such as indexed abstracts and citation indexes. It became possible to consider a field most thoroughly researched if one covered all such material. Nevertheless, you still had to wade through the paper by hand, and it was extremely time consuming and considerably less fun than spine-searching.

Of course, you also relied on the advice of supervisors and colleagues to ensure that nothing was neglected. I recall one professor who kept a copy of every book he had read and could ensure his supervisees did not miss something by going to his extensive bookcases and physically handing them the relevant tomes. But scholarly prejudices and the imperfections and selective nature of human memory meant that even that source could not be regarded as thoroughly exhaustive.

But surely, you might think, there can be no excuses in today’s digital world? Yet I am frequently surprised at the omissions I find when carrying out web searches, since so much has to do with the techniques that can be employed to bring some topics and sources to the fore. Much depends on the search engine employed, and then it requires skilled surfing to evade excessive self-promotion and discover genuine advances.

Even before the days of the World Wide Web, the internet offered many resources, such as listservs, that permitted you to vastly expand your scholarly networks. These have since been replaced by more formulaic and ultimately commercial platforms such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate. Either way, though, you could spend a great deal of time on professional networks doing the novices’ work for them. I must sound like an old academic fogey when I respond to the same old queries by suggesting that the questioners do their research – or pointing out that the issue they are addressing was already comprehensively addressed years ago. But these things need to be said.

Research assessment cycles and career advancement are two reasons why a researcher might choose to ignore a work by someone else that might undermine their own claim to originality. There can be nothing worse than spending many months developing an idea and writing a paper only to discover that similar findings were published only a few years earlier. Do you go for a rewrite and admit a diminution of originality? Or submit and pray that the referees also missed the earlier work?

The key question in all this is who suffers if any academic neglects earlier work. Clearly the academic ultimately loses out in not actually making a real contribution to the advancement of knowledge. That may not be noticed except by the few who have access to the relevant sources, but if it subsequently comes to light, the academic’s contribution is doubly diminished by the inevitable suspicion that the prior work was deliberately ignored.

The body of scientific knowledge also suffers in that progress is necessarily slowed by unnecessary repetition. And society suffers in having to pay the costs of delayed progress and wasted effort that could have been put to much better use.

So what is the remedy for neglect through incompetence or, worse, conscious omission? There was a time when I would have advocated the revival of the 18th-century French encyclopedists’ aim of summarising all the major advances in each particular field. But now that we have Wikipedia I am less convinced of the trustworthiness of that approach. Instead, we will have to rely upon improving both the search skills and the professional ethics of the individual researcher. Only conscience can ultimately ensure that credit is always given where credit is due.

Ron Iphofen is an independent research consultant.

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