Sight what you cite

There seems to be a widespread practice of researchers citing papers they have never even seen, let alone read. For example

  • Some papers claim to do something new when it has already been done in one of the papers cited.
  • Some articles are cited that apparently have little to do with the reason given for the citation, or which argue the opposite point of view to what is claimed.
  • A paper uses method X and cites an article which points out a flaw in method X, with no comment on why the flaw can be ignored.
  • Reference details are so full of errors that the paper can never have been sighted.
  • Some mis-spellings of an author’s names are perpetuated through long series of copied citations with no-one ever checking the details. I frequently correct the list of references in papers to appear in the International Journal of Forecasting, but only where I notice an error, or where it looks suspicous. I haven’t time to check them all; besides, that’s the author’s job.

William Webber points out that there are cited papers that have never even been written! One famous paper has 215 citations on Google scholar despite the fact that it doesn’t exist. And at least one of those citations is by the author of the non-existent paper!

How can this happen? It is simply sloppy, lazy, and unacceptable. Here are a few comments that I regard as the bare minimum for responsible scholarship.

  1. Every article cited should be sighted, and preferably read.
  2. At the very least, check that the article cited really does say what you think it says.
  3. Type the reference information yourself from the original source, not copied from someone else’s citation.
  4. Don’t just cite what other people say about citations. For example, “Paper 1 says x about Paper 2”. Unless you have read both Paper 1 and Paper 2, and you have something to say about the statement x in Paper 1, there is no point simply repeating it. It makes you look lazy and incapable of forming your own opinion. If Paper 1 is incorrect, then you look stupid as well.
  5. Avoid lists of gratuitous references. For example, “There has been a lot of recent work (e.g., a, b, c, d, e, f, g) on this topic.”  Instead, cite the relevant background literature, and make comments about how each cited paper fits in with what your paper is about. Just listing papers for the sake of extending your own bibliography is rather pointless.
  6. Before you submit your paper, go through the bibliography and check the details one more time.

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