Posted in Ethics
As a scientist reading a substantial amount of papers I regularly read articles with inadequate referencing. Obviously some papers contain too many self-citations, however my main concern is about missed references. Why are the (co-)authors missing references to crucial and important work of others or, more worrisome on a personal level, to my own work? Here I would like to discuss this issue in more detail.
The most common way to disseminate scientific knowledge is through the publication of peer-reviewed articles. An important aspect of any scientific paper is the inclusion of references. The purpose of references are to acknowledge your sources of knowledge, to guide readers to other papers that explain details of the work presented, and/or to show the context of the work in relation to other peoples’ work. The latter purpose is to indicate similar work, competing methods, and/or alternatives to the presented work. References enable other people to repeat your research, to follow-up on your research by applying your methodology/results to other areas, and/or to use your work outside the context of the original work.
Proper use of references supports and strengthens key scientific values such as
- originality: who was first with an idea/method/invention
- research impact: is the work influential or not
- scientific content: it is not the way you present, but what you present that matters
Not properly referring to the work of your fellow scientists reduces the emphasis of science on the above mentioned values. For many of us writing scientific papers the inclusion of appropriate references is taken with great consideration. However, I regularly observe missed references, something that needs to be opposed. I classify the missed references into three categories:
1. ‘Missed reference’ of similar work
This is the most obvious ‘missed reference’ and should be counteracted strongly. Although it is difficult to have an overview of all literature in your field, it is of critical importance for any author to make reference to the work of others who have done work similar to (part) of the work you present. Moreover, not giving proper reference to other similar work leads to advocating novelty where there is none. If we, as a scientific community, permit missing references to similar work, hence permit experiments/theory to be presented as novel, we devaluate the scientific value of originality, research impact, and scientific content.
2. ‘Missed reference’ of competitors
In the fierce competition between researchers it is important to stay ahead of the competition. To create the image of being the leader in a field it is of importance to emphasize one’s results and de-emphasize the results of competitors and earlier research. For example, an alternative method with similar end results may be ignored to favor one’s own approach to the problem. I have the feeling that sometimes references are missed with the aim to reduce the competitors’ citation rate, and enhance one’s image of innovativeness and originality. This situation is clearly not favorable and it is the task of the journal editor to have papers being peer-review by competitors and/or suggest the inclusion of crucial references relevant to the work.
3. Missed reference’ by ignorance
The ‘publish or perish‘ maxim in science creates a strong publication pressure and therefore results in high throughput writing of papers. As a result, a proper literature survey is sometimes not performed. I observe that papers including several similar key words in the title have not been referenced to. In this age of search machines and online journal availability this can be an indication of sloppiness and/or ignorance.
In general, the peer-review process is a check on the inclusion of appropriate references in articles. However, its emphasis is primarily on scientific content and not on appropriate referencing. As a reviewer of a paper with missing references you can suggest the inclusion of references crucial to the paper. Yet, most of the time you read an article with inappropriate references after publication. The question is what to do with ‘missed references’, especially when they concern your own work? It is clear that any action is always after the fact and will not result in reclaimed references to one’s own work. Based on the level of reference misrepresentation (see classification) I advocate contacting authors of papers with missing references as it is important to show commitment to your own work. Perhaps, in the future they will properly reference to your work and in case you meet one of the authors at a conference they cannot pretend of not knowing of your work. Finally, it is the responsibility of the editor to promote proper referencing as an editor should have an overview of the work done in his/her topical research area. If you suspect systematic incorrect referencing practices by authors, I recommend contacting the editor as well.
Although the inclusion of references is most of the time based on a best effort of the authors, we scientists should be aware of the value of proper referencing to other work and guard for its appropriate use.