Friday, December 29, 2006

Most Scientists Don't Read All of the Articles They Cite

Every scientific discovery builds on what came before. Because of this, research papers are
chock-full of references to previous papers, leading you to believe that those older studies
actually have been read and digested and are now being expanded upon.
After noticing that a lot of citations with identical mistakes were showing up in various papers,
two researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to study the problem. They
looked at the way well-known, heavily-cited papers had been referenced in subsequent papers.
Regarding an influential paper on crystals published in 1973, New Scientist explains:
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.
Obviously, these pursuers of scientific truths hadn't actually read the original paper, but had just
clipped the reference from another paper, a trick they probably learned in college and never
stopped using. Of course, some of the scientists who got the citation right hadn't read the paper,
either. In the final analysis:
The model shows that the distribution of misprinted citations of the 1973 paper could only
have arisen if 78 percent of all the citations, including the correct ones, were "cut and
pasted" from a secondary source. Many of those who got it right were simply lucky.

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