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Selective Reporting of Literature

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One of the main purposes of reviewing the relevant literature and citing others’ work is to provide empirical and/or theoretical support for one’s thesis, be it a paper for a course we are taking, a grant application, a doctoral dissertation, or a paper targeted for publication in a scientific journal. The literature review provides readers with the proper context to understand a proposed study or theory by informing them of important issues, such as the current state of knowledge on the topic, the type of methodologies being used in the area, the theoretical underpinnings of the research, and the significance of the problem. Depending on the type of manuscript under development, the literature review will be either comprehensive (e.g., doctoral dissertation, review article) or very succinct (e.g., journal article). The latter situation presents a unique challenge because even though the cost of online publication is relatively inexpensive, print journal space can still be expensive forcing authors to be concise in their writing (thus the move toward online supplemental material).

For aspiring scholars and scientists, the classroom represents the training ground for future professionals. As a result, professors tailor the requirements for academic papers assigned in many graduate and advanced undergraduate courses to those demanded by scholarly journals (see for example, Salazar, 1993). These constraints sometimes present a real challenge for authors, who must always make an effort to simplify their literature reviews and only include a concise summary of highly relevant papers.

Obviously, literature cited in support of our hypotheses must be grounded in sound arguments, tight research methodologies, and flawless data. Citing references known to be methodologically or logically deficient in support of our work is ethically problematic, particularly if we fail to mention these shortcomings. Likewise, if in our search for relevant literature we become aware of important relevant evidence that runs contrary to our data or point of view, we have an ethical obligation to cite such evidence, either in the introduction or the discussion section of our paper. We must not do this dismissively, but in an unbiased manner. Of course, there are situations in which the extent of our examination of the literature is limited by publishing concerns specific to the type of articles proposed (e.g., short communication, brief report, letter to the editor). Space limitations in such contexts may render it impractical to provide adequate coverage of relevant literature, let alone contrary evidence.

The main purpose of an introductory section of a manuscript is to describe the problem being investigated and the relevant research/and or scholarship on the subject. Based on the rapid pace at which some areas in science and scholarship continue to grow, authors are not always able to cite all of the relevant literature, either because of space constraints or their inability to simply keep up with the burgeoning literature. On the other hand, some authors will deliberately leave out pertinent literature, for a variety of reasons. Thus a perusal of scholarly journals that accept letters to the editor as commentaries to recently published articles will reveal instances in which such seemingly intentional writing lapses are fairly common (see Goodman, 1998; Perkin, 1999; Nathan, 1994).

GUIDELINE 21: When appropriate, authors have an ethical responsibility to report evidence that runs contrary to their point of view. In addition, evidence that we use in support of our position must be methodologically sound. When citing supporting studies that suffer from methodological, statistical, or other types of shortcomings, such flaws must be pointed out to the reader.