Did you know that most scientists do not read papers they cite?

I saw this little factoid on one of those “things they don’t want you to know” that are doing rounds online. It was something among the lines of:

Recent studies show that most scientists do not read all the papers they cite.

My initial reaction was “LOL, this sounds about right!” But then I decided to dig around and see if there is any merit to this bold statement. Apparently there is. In 2002 two dudes named Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury from University of Califonia actually decided to grab bunch of academic papers, and track how small typos in the bibliography propagated from paper to paper. New Scientist actually covered their research few years back:

Simkin and Roychowdhury looked at citation data for a famous 1973 paper on the structure of two-dimensional crystals. They found it had been cited in other papers 4300 times, with 196 citations containing misprints in the volume, page or year. But despite the fact that a billion different versions of erroneous reference are possible, they counted only 45. The most popular mistake appeared 78 times.

The pattern suggests that 45 scientists, who might well have read the paper, made an error when they cited it. Then 151 others copied their misprints without reading the original. So for at least 77 per cent of the 196 misprinted citations, no one read the paper.

People who never actually wrote research papers, or toiled in academia are probably shocked by this factoid. I’m not. As bad as it may sound, I can tell you that this shit happens all the time. And in most cases, this is not nearly as alarming as these people are making it. Let me explain.

Do you really think it is that important to read a 16 year old paper, if you just read 27 papers that essentially re-iterate that original research and then suggest various improvements? Especially if some of those recent papers are written with much more accessible language, and explain the problem clearer? Or if another paper frames the original in a way that pertains to your own research. Or if the original is a barely legible pseudo-english with odd grammar and sentence construction and overabundance of intricate jargon? This often happens when the original researcher is not a native english speaker.

You already know what were the findings in the original, because all those other researchers just gave you the cliff-notes version. Furthermore, your mentor or sponsor wants to sea a draft yesterday, you still have pile of other stuff to go through, and you haven’t slept in two weeks. What do you do? There is little value in tracking down the original in a situation like that. Even if you find it, you know you will not read it from cover to cover. You will just briefly skim it, and maybe check the formulas.

So you do what everyone else does in this situation. You grab another coffee, copy the citation from one of your sources, then your have a 2 second lapse of microsleep due to sleep deprivation, and you move on to bigger and better things.

To tell you the truth, I saw this pattern when I was working on my thesis. At one time I actually lined up 4 papers at the table and started highlighting. I found the same exact sentence in each of them, attributed to the same source. Naturally were minor stylistic and grammatical differences between them (because they had to work it into the flow of the paper) but the wording of the argument was nearly identical. All these people essentially copied and pasted from each other. And these were all articles from peer reviewed journals. :p

Gotta love academia. :mrgreen:

[tags]academia, academic research, scientific research, citing, citing sources, sources, citations, research, thesis, science[/tags]

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3 Responses to Did you know that most scientists do not read papers they cite?

  1. astropixie UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    its also possible that one reads the original paper, but copies the citation from another paper. i’ve done this several times (and have hopefully not propagated any citation errors!!).

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  2. Luke UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Yep, exactly. That’s because the other paper already has all the bibliographical info you need – so you don’t need to look for the journal name, issue, page numbers and all that stuff if someone else already did the legwork. :)

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  3. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This happened to me too. The ITiCSE paper I wrote a while back, I found a carnige melon paper that cited me as two different people within the same citation.

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