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Ethically Questionable Citation Practices

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Citations and References

Citations are the notations in the text of a paper that identify the source and/or evidence for our claims and for related research and theories mentioned in the paper. Depending on the style of writing being used these are typically represented as numbers in parentheses or in superscript (e.g., AMA) or as last names with dates (e.g., APA). The list of references is always found at the end of a paper and these contain the full bibliographic information and/or sufficient detail for readers to track down copies of these works (e.g., names of the authors, titles of articles or books, journal title, volume number, pagination and year of publication, Digital Object Identifier [DOI] and Uniform Resource Locator [URL] if required).

Carelessness in citing sources

References play a crucial role in scholarly and scientific writing for they allow the reader to explore in more detail a given line of thinking or evidence. For these reasons, it is important that authors strive for accuracy when listing references in manuscripts. Unfortunately, it appears that some authors do not always give the proper level of attention to citations and reference sections. In fact, the available evidence suggests that a disproportionate number of errors occur in reference sections even in some of the most prestigious biomedical journals (e.g., Siebers and Holt, 2000). Moreover, with the advent of online-only journals and digital stand-alone documents, the temporary nature of some of these works is an emerging problem. That is, a document may be located in one digital domain, only to change domains later and have a different URL. A case in point is this very resource. Originally, the first version of this document resided in a St. John’s University domain address and later migrated to an ORI domain. Often, in situations like this, the source can be located with relatively little effort. However, other digital documents may disappear altogether and can no longer be easily obtained. When a reference that is used as supporting evidence cannot be accessed, its absence can raise questions about, and/or weakens, the validity of claims that rest upon it.

The importance of citing the original observation

Another area of concern is the failure to cite the author who first reports the phenomenon being studied. Apparently, some authors instead cite later studies that better substantiate the original observation. Often, this outcome is a result of our attempts at being concise or perhaps a journal’s limitation on the numbers of references that can be included in an article. Admittedly, some discoveries and their originators are so well-known that they are treated as common knowledge within the immediate domain-specific research community. However, in cases in which the pertinent information may not be generally known, it is important to acknowledge and credit the original discovery. As Zigmond and Fischer (2002) note, failure to cite the original report denies the individual who made the initial discovery his/her due credit.

GUIDELINE 15: Authors are strongly urged to double-check their citations. Specifically, authors should always ensure that each reference notation appearing in the body of the manuscript corresponds to the correct citation listed in the reference section and vice versa and that each source listed in the reference section has been cited at some point in the manuscript. In addition, authors should also ensure that all elements of a citation (e.g., spelling of authors’ names, volume number of journal, pagination) are derived directly from the original paper, rather than from a citation that appears on a secondary source. Finally, when appropriate, authors should ensure that credit is given to those authors who first reported the phenomenon being studied.

Inappropriate Manipulation of References

In a later section I discuss the tendency on the part of some authors to provide what others view as a biased review of the relevant literature. That is, in placing their data or theory in the context of existing relevant work, authors sometimes cite only references that are favorable to their position. However, consistent with the basic tenets of ethical writing and scientific objectivity, we have a responsibility to cite all relevant material, even work that may contradict our own position. Failure to do so compromises our professional obligation to remain unbiased and is antithetical to the primary mission of a scientist’s search for truth.

Citation Stuffing. Another inappropriate use of references occurs when authors intentionally cite their own work, regardless of its relevance, in an attempt to manipulate their own articles’ impact factor. Although several criticisms of this measure have emerged over the years (Khaled, 2015; Rossner, Van Epps, & Hill, 2007), the impact factor, which takes into account how often articles published in those journals are cited, continues to be used as a measure of importance and prestige by journals. Likewise, a measure of the number of times a journal article is cited in other articles can also be used as an estimation of its importance in an individuals’ tenure and review decisions, thus the tendency of some authors to weave into their paper references of their own prior work that may be of limited relevance to the actual topic of the paper.

A related matter involves the inappropriate inclusion of references that are authored by individuals thought to be likely peer reviewers of the article in question, the thought being that a reviewer will be more likely to give a favorable review to a paper that cites his or her own work than to one that does not.

Finally, there is some evidence that editors of some journals sometimes insist that authors include references from their journal for the mere purpose of enhancing that journal’s impact factor (Wilhite & Fong, 2012). Authors should attempt to resist such requests unless the editors’ or reviewers’ recommendations are genuinely relevant to their paper.

GUIDELINE 16: The references used in a paper should only be those that are directly related to its contents. The intentional inclusion of references of questionable relevance for purposes such as manipulating a journal’s or a paper’s impact factor or a paper’s chances of acceptance, is an unacceptable practice.