Science blog

20 September 2013

Don't Quote Me on That

This week Lee-Ann Coleman explores the circuitous world of citations - but don't quote her on that.

Science is built on evidence - and since no one person has done all the experiments, researchers are taught early in their careers to support their arguments by referring to previous published work. First encounters with the discipline of citation can be pretty tedious. Those of us who started research before digital (hard as that is to believe) fondly remember assembling our hand-written card indexes and keeping photocopies and precious reprints (who remembers the reprint request card?) of papers filed in our own idiosyncratic system. Now there are a plethora of tools to help researchers organise and format their references. Although the technology may have improved, it doesn't mean that the underlying issues about what to cite have gone away.

As a young researcher starting a PhD, your first task is to get to grips with your chosen field. Getting to know the literature - which in science mostly means journal articles – requires you to become familiar with this particular form of writing.  The various sections of the paper - introduction, methods, results, discussion - have their particular purpose, but where another article has been cited, it is usually listed at the end of the paper. And that is the process of scientific publication which, on the surface, seems straightforward. However, when one thing refers to another thing, whole worlds of meaning become attached to that interaction.

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Photo source: Shutterstock

At our first ever TalkScience back in 2008, Professor Tim Birkhead, an evolutionary biologist at Sheffield University, highlighted key issues around citation in science and these topics continue to be the focus of much discussion:

  • Does the use of a single citation search tool (e.g. PubMed, Google Scholar, Web of Science) bias the results? To be truly unbiased should you use multiple tools?
  • Do researchers indulge in selective citation to support a particular argument or hypothesis. Are people only citing portions of an article and thereby deliberately ignoring conflicting evidence elsewhere within the same article?
  • Even when the “original” paper is cited, it is often misquoted. Are researchers reading papers or just repeating others' mistakes?
  • Is there a citation bias against non-English language papers or papers from “non-English-speaking” countries?
  • Is there a preference for citing only well-known papers or those that are published in high impact journals?
  • Are citations and bibliometric measures in general an accurate reflection of research excellence?

Eugene Garfield - often referred to as the father of bibliometrics - has written extensively on citations and has posed many underlying reasons for citing behaviour. And it is not always about citing work that has gone before but can be to pay homage, have an argument, identify methodology etc. Different subjects also have their own cultures when it comes to citation practice and norms - some requiring only the latest research as it is understood that everyone is aware where the state of knowledge is. In others, the so-called 'foundation' papers are always quoted - even though people have probably never read them (Hargens, 2000).

Researchers not only love their work to be cited but they often need it to be - to get the next grant, secure a position, and gain the respect of other scientists. So any biases in the system need to be understood and counteracted to ensure that rewards are given where they are properly due.

For further reading on this topic there are some excellent blogs at:


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