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The importance of proper citation

May 20, 2012 Filed under Blog, Featured, Reviewing, Writing 

Just recently I discovered a published article that neglected to cite the whole field of the topic that they were investigating. The article did have citations to the statistical methods and other papers that were related to their work, but not a single paper had been cited that had performed the same statistical analyses that they had but on the same topic. To my knowledge, none of the authors had published on this topic before.

I knew the literature quite well on this topic, and, unfortunately, my name was a coauthor on several of these uncited papers. Yet, the field only amounted to less than 10 papers. It would not have been an onerous task to cite this small body of literature.

I suppose we have all had one or two of our papers not be cited before, but I can’t say that I’ve seen such an egregious lack of knowledge of the previous literature on a topic end up in a published paper before. At best, it indicates carelessness on the part of the authors that none of them knew the literature or bothered to find out. At worst, the authors were trying to take credit for the work that others had done before them or to actively ignore or suppress those contributions. Somewhere in the middle is the possibility that the authors knew about the literature, but simply forgot to include it. None of these explanations is acceptable.

If you are an author, it is your responsibility to ensure that you’ve cited the relevant literature. Reviewers should be knowledgeable about the literature and should call attention to articles that the authors omitted. Not citing the literature is ethically wrong and could be construed as plagiarism. From plagiarism.org:

Simply put, plagiarism is the use of another’s original words or ideas as though they were your own. Any time you borrow from an original source and do not give proper credit, you have committed plagiarism and violated U.S. copyright laws.

In this case, the authors borrowed the ideas from these previous papers and didn’t cite a single one of them. They committed plagiarism by this definition.

The literature is vast. Keeping thousands of papers in my head, in my reprint folders, or even in my digital archives is a challenge. Remembering to cite them all is yet another challenge. Yet, it is something we must take seriously.

I admit previous guilt on this matter. Even on my massive article on occluded fronts with 190 references, I still omitted crucial references, as an email from Louis Uccellini reminded me. I can at least say that it was unintentional and had I remembered those papers, most certainly would have cited them. Nevertheless, it is not much consolation for the authors who I aggrieved or for my own sense of what is right and wrong.

In these days where the number of citations that we get on our papers could mean the difference between a promotion or not, a job offer or not, or receiving recognition as the originator of a great idea, ensuring correct citation is critical part of what we as scientists do.

(Image from http://micdsstudents.wikispaces.com/Citation+Guide via imagechef.com)

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