Gallagher R. "Citation Violations" The Scientist 23(5):13, May 2009
garfield at CODEX.CIS.UPENN.EDU
Tue May 5 14:03:42 EDT 2009
E-mail: rgallagher at the-scientist.com
TITLE: Citation Violations (Editorial Material, English)
SOURCE:SCIENTIST 23 (5). MAY 2009. p.13 SCIENTIST INC, Philadelphia
AUTHOR ADDRESS: R Gallagher, The Scientist, 400 Market St,Suite 1250,
Philadelphia, PA 19106 USA
Volume 23 | Issue 5 | Page 13
Scientists are guilty of bibliographic negligence. Here's how to police the
pages of journals.
By Richard Gallagher
The age-old problem of attribution in science—in other words, the practice
of citation—has resurfaced with a vengeance in a couple of recent fracases.
What's new about these cases is that they're being played out online in
full gory detail and in real time. For the first time, large sections of
the community can get involved in judging the evidence for themselves, and
in having their say. It's very illuminating.
At the theoretical level, the assignment of credit for previous research is
straightforward: When writing a paper, authors should cite any highly
relevant publications that have a bearing on the research being written up.
But this comforting rule of thumb isn't necessarily followed. From
disregarding the wealth of "old" scientific observations to omitting
mention of competitors' latest results, citation practice has always been a
source of tension in science, as it probably is in every other professional
pursuit. Eugene Garfield, Editor Emeritus of The Scientist, has written
extensively on the topic, coining the terms "bibliographic negligence" in
2002, and "citation amnesia" a decade earlier.
The first of the recent cases that I want to highlight surfaced late last
year, when a collection of researchers accused the authors of a Cell paper
of "improper citation, disregard for antecedent research, and shoddy
experimentation." The work was on cell-cell communication in the
organization of epithelia. Our story on the subject1 generated 37 comments
from concerned readers.
When the controversy emerged, Cell flatly refused to fully engage with the
complainants, inviting them instead to post a comment on the journal's Web
site. For the record, I've been an editor at Science and Nature, and have
the highest respect for the skills and dedication of that cadre. But it's
high time that journal editors joined the rest of us in openly discussing
and learning from serious disputes. Their ongoing censorship2 is helping no
one, and they are running the risk of making themselves irrelevant through
In the second case, researcher Neil Greenspan, writing on our Web site,3
describes how the perceived novelty and importance of a specific study were
significantly enhanced by omission of prior work. The subject matter of the
paper, published in Science, is the development of an antibody with two
specificities. While not disputing the validity or interest of the study,
Greenspan takes issue with a portrayal of the work that "unfairly damage(s)
investigators whose work and ideas are not cited or taken into account." At
the time of writing, Science had not responded to his criticism.
These recent examples raised a number of old questions: How widespread is
foul play in citation practice? Is there a "best practice" and, if so, how
should it be implemented? To help answer these questions, we've posted an
online survey here. It's anonymous and the accumulated results are
immediately available to participants, so if you want a snapshot of where
we stand in relation to citation practice, check it out.
We need a code of practice for citation, which journals should adopt
explicitly. Gene Garfield called for this many years ago, suggesting that
authors sign a pledge or oath that they have done a minimal search of the
literature and that to the best of their knowledge there is no other
relevant work. This is, in fact, the oath one signs when filing for a US
Judging by the amount of publicity for fraud and greed in science,
standards appear to be in freefall. I am not sure that I buy it. I think
that the openness gifted us by the Internet is revealing the lax standards
that have been in place all the time. The purifying glare of publicity may
actually help us get our house in order—I wish that the editors of research
journals would get this.
rgallagher at the-scientist.com
1. B. Grant, "Critics rip Cell paper," The Scientist NewsBlog, November 25,
2. R. Gallagher, "End the Censorship of Science," The Scientist, 21(5):13,
May 1, 2007.
3. N. Greenspan, "The Hype of Science," The Scientist NewsBlog, April 15,
End the Censorship of Science
The hype of science
Critics rip Cell paper
Citation Amnesia Survey
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