Citing Sources that Were Not Read or Thoroughly Understood

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The practice of relying on a published paper’s abstract to describe its contents also fits in the present category. However, there are other scenarios that better illustrate the practice of citing papers that were either poorly understood or perhaps not even read by the author citing them. Below are a couple of examples:

Consider an investigator who is in the process of writing the results of a series of studies he conducted. In his search for background literature relevant to his work, he finds one particular journal article whose introduction cites a number of other works that seem very relevant to his own paper. Although he recognizes most of the references cited, there are a couple of papers that he is not familiar with and, for a variety of reasons, he cannot obtain copies of them at this point. Given the context of the published paper’s description of these two other papers that are unfamiliar to him, our author decides to include them in his own review of the literature by paraphrasing the relevant portions of the published paper’s introduction that summarize the contributions of these two unfamiliar (to him) papers. He then includes these papers as references in his manuscript’s reference section, along with that of the journal article from which he derived the information. Finally, although our author cites the published article in at least one other context, he does not indicate that this article had served as the source of the information from the two other papers, which he had never read.

By not revealing the true source of the paraphrased content from these two papers, the reader is deceived by falsely assuming that the brief summary of these two papers was based on the author’s reading of them. Technically, this type of transgression could conceivably qualify as a form of plagiarism because the author has paraphrased a summary of another’s work, but attributed his summary to the author of the journal article. Of course, a formal charge of plagiarism would depend on a number of variables, such as the amount of paraphrasing that took place without proper attribution, the significance or uniqueness of the material involved, etc.

This type of deceptive citation practice can also be risky because of the possibility that other key aspects of the papers cited (but which were not read) do not quite support the offending author’s thesis. Therefore, there may be significant lapses in his rationale for the study. Inexperienced students sometimes use this short-cut when given the task of reviewing the literature on a given topic. In their search for relevant literature, they may come upon a published paper that reviews roughly the same literature that the student has been tasked to summarize. In an effort to optimize his time, and given the great cognitive effort needed to read, assimilate, and synthesize the literature into a coherent summary, some students will rely primarily on the published review and paraphrase its contents in such a deceptive manner as to give the appearance that he has read and summarized the research. To maintain the deception, the student will include in his/her paper’s reference section many of the sources cited in the published review, including perhaps the article from which all of the material was taken. Again, this strategy misleads the reader (i.e., the professor) into assuming that the student has actually read all of the papers cited in his/her review when, in fact, he has not. Ironically, these transgressions are typically uncovered, not only because the students’ paraphrases are often too close to the original, thus betraying the students’ less sophisticated writing, but also because at least some of the papers cited are perhaps known to their professor to only be tangentially supportive of the students’ main thesis. Other clues in the quality of the writing often point to the deception that the student did not really review the pertinent literature.

The reader should note, however, that there might be instances in which the practice of citing sources that were not read may be acceptable. For example, an author may simply wish to point out a well-known discovery or theory and provide the reader with the original citation. When this is done without misleading the reader into believing that the author read the paper detailing the discovery and is thoroughly acquainted with its contents, then no real harm is done. For example, in a paper on intelligence testing I may want to refer the reader to the psychometric properties of the X test and write: “for a review of validity of reliability of X test see reference Y”. Although I am clearly aware that reference Y reviews validity and reliability for various intelligence tests, including test X, my citation of this work does not imply that I have read and processed its contents. I am merely aware that relevant material may be found in that reference and point the reader to it. However, if in a different paper I were to write that “Smith (1879) studied the effects of X on Y and concluded that X is as important as Z and both are critical causal variables in the incidence of Y” such a statement strongly suggests that my summary of the study is, in fact, based on my reading of that paper.

GUIDELINE 18: Generally, when describing others’ work, do not cite an original paper if you are only relying on a secondary summary of that paper. Doing so is a deceptive practice, reflects poor scholarly standards, and can lead to a flawed description of the work described.

Some writing manuals have spelled out specific conventions to deal with a situation when an important paper relevant to one’s manuscript contains a reference that we would like to cite, but is not available to us. One such writing manual, is the current edition of the Style Manual of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association, 2010) which offers a simple strategy for authors who need to cite a source that is not available to them, but that is contained within another source (as described earlier). Let’s say that our author had read about the work of Smith from a paper published in 1999 in an article authored by Rodriguez that was published in 2015. According to the APA Manual the author can use this material by stating as follows: “According to Smith (1999; as cited in Rodriguez, 2015) an important variable …” The reader may have noticed that I have already relied on this strategy elsewhere in this instructional resource.

There is at least one other inappropriate citation practice that merits mentioning. Consider the situation in which a ”landmark” paper, whose contributions are relatively well known, needs to be cited in a manuscript. The author, a senior researcher with a lengthy publication record cannot readily find a copy of the paper, but he knows that he has read it at least once, back in his graduate school days, and has cited it before, as he is very familiar with it. In summarizing the contents of this landmark paper, the author relies on his recollection of its contents based on his prior reading of the paper and on summaries published by others. After all, this is a paper that is widely known throughout the discipline. The problem with the above situation is that there is a strong possibility that our recollection of subtle details about a paper read at a much earlier time is probably less than optimal. In addition, even though we may have read about those same details via secondary sources, these may have inadvertently slanted or distorted important details of the work, particularly if the material in question is of a controversial nature. Even if the material is accurately described elsewhere, the different contexts in which it is read may lead to differences in how that material is encoded in our minds which, therefore, could lead to difference in how certain elements are recalled. Taken together, these factors can ultimately result in the dissemination of faulty information.

An excellent example of this type of problem within the social sciences concerns current descriptions of a famous demonstration carried out by psychologists John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner (1920) in which an infant known as “Little Albert” was conditioned to fear a rat. Watson and Rayner’s demonstration with Little Albert is cited in a large proportion of introductory psychology textbooks and in many other textbooks within that discipline and beyond (e.g., education, nursing). However, according to Paul and Blumenthal (1989), investigators have pointed out a number of serious flaws in this classic demonstration and have shown how, over the years, various elements of the demonstration have become distorted. For example, some descriptions of Little Albert indicate that Watson & Rayner used a white rabbit rather than a white rat. In explaining the continued presence of this classic demonstration in textbooks without mention of the flaws, Paul and Blumenthal state:

Textbook authors are under considerable pressure to keep their references current. An author who cites older works will often be instructed by manuscript reviewers and editors to consult the current literature. Most surely do. But from the evidence of the texts, others simply update their citations or lists of ‘suggestion for further reading.’ As a result, references in introductory textbooks sometimes bear little relationship to authors’ substantive discussions. Indeed, citation may directly contradict claims asserted in the text.” (p. 551).

Interestingly, factual errors, albeit mostly minor in scope, concerning the story of Little Albert continue to be found in introductory texts that cover this material (Harris, 2011).

GUIDELINE 19: If an author must rely on a secondary source (e.g., textbook) to describe the contents of a primary source (e.g., an empirical journal article), s/he should consult writing manuals used in her discipline to follow the proper convention to do so. Above all, always indicate to the reader the actual source of the information being reported.

Source URL: https://ori.hhs.gov/citing-sources-were-not-read-or-thoroughly-understood