On citing well

[Crossposted from S&P Editors Blog]

The journal Nature Chemical Biology has an editorial that is well worth reading and pondering for other fields as well:

Unfortunately, the editorial is behind a paywall. Here are the main points in excerpts.

The appearance of new ideas and discoveries in the scientific literature is a reflection of ongoing scientific progress. Individual articles are nodes of scientific knowledge, but citations of published work link together the concepts, technologies and advances that define scientific disciplines. Though information technology and databases have helped us to better manage the expanding scientific literature, the quality of our citation maps still hinges on the quality of the bibliographic information contained in each published paper. Because article citations are increasingly used as metrics of researcher productivity, the citation record also affects individual scientists and their institutions. As a result, all participants in the scientific publication process need to ensure that the citation network of the scientific literature is as complete and accurate as possible.

Many factors may stand in the way of good citation practices. […] Each research group has its own referencing habits, and some may feature their own work too prominently or rely on familiar references without a critical examination of whether a particular citation is the most appropriate in the given context. Some researchers may not cite ‘old’ papers either because these are incorrectly viewed as being out of date or because inertia inevitably may encourage authors to cite the articles that show up more frequently in searches or that have appeared recently.

Researchers understandably are motivated, in both professional and personal ways, to have their scientific contributions recognized through citation by their peers. The community also values the accurate assignment of credit and precedence for scientific discoveries. As a result, even an accidental omission of a necessary citation may create an uncomfortable situation for a papers authors. More problematic, however, are cases where authors deliberately omit relevant citations. Because perceived novelty can be an important factor in determining where a manuscript is published, some authors may be tempted to avoid citing earlier or concurrent work from their own laboratories to enhance the apparent advance of a submitted study. In other cases, some authors may consider ongoing scientific disagreements, personal conflicts or competition a sufficient justification for omitting citations of work by others. Clearly authors need to do everything they can to avoid accidental omission of key references, and should never exclude relevant citations for nonscientific reasons. In turn, all scientists, independent of their roles as authors, referees or editors, need to renew their commitment to guaranteeing that literature citations correctly assign credit for ideas and discoveries and are placed thoughtfully in manuscripts and published papers.

Though editors and referees can help, authors are ultimately responsible for the information contained in their published papers. We recommend that authors take several important steps to increase the quality of their citation lists. First, principal investigators need to teach young scientists the appropriate ways to select manuscript references and mentor them in the ethical dimensions of citation. Second, authors need to put as much care into selecting and accurately citing references as they devote to the rest of their manuscripts. As part
of this process, authors should perform comprehensive literature searches as they write and revise manuscripts, so as to identify relevant work that may need to be cited. Before including references in their citation lists, all authors should have read and discussed the candidate references
to ensure that they are the most relevant choices and are called out at the appropriate point in the paper.

The responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the citation network of a discipline resides with all participants: authors, referees, editors and database managers. Thoughtful attention during the writing and review processes remains the first and best approach for ensuring citation quality and the appropriate assignment of credit in published papers. Yet new publishing and database tools that lead us to an interactive multidimensional scientific literature will become essential. As publishers move toward integrating functionality such as real-time commenting on published papers and creating living manuscripts that preserve the snapshot of a research area through the lens of a published paper, while permitting forward and backward linking, the scientific literature is poised to become a richer environment that will support future scientific progress.

At S&P, we are fully committed to these goals, but could surely work harder to improve the citation practices. One of our criteria for evaluating submissions is “contextualization of research”, as spelled out in our inaugural editorial:

Are the main research questions contextualized in terms of earlier related work? Does the paper adequately cite related work? Could the impact of the paper be improved through modifications that would show the relevance of the results to future work in the same or other fields?

Advice to authors: by contextualizing results appropriately, the author not only increases the worth of the paper to the audience, but also makes the job of the editors and reviewers easier. It will be much easier for us to be sure that a paper should be published if we can clearly see what previous work it betters. Authors would do well to flag, both in the abstract and early on in the paper, the relationship of the paper to earlier proposals, and to indicate in broad terms what the relative advantages of the new approach are. Of course, it is then incumbent on the author to make sure that all such claims are fully justified in the main text of the article.

Another aspect of this is that once the relevant citations have been chosen, the bibliographic detail given in the article needs to be as complete and clear as possible:

  • full first names of authors and editors
  • both volume and issue numbers for journal articles
  • page numbers for everything that appeared on numbered pages
  • DOIs for every work that has a DOI (important both for easy access by readers to the cited literature and for all kinds of automated processes, present and future)
  • URLs for unpublished manuscripts and other obscure sources
  • conference proceedings formatted as specified in the Unified Style Sheet for Linguistics

S&P strives towards citing well, which requires continuous attention from authors, reviewers, and editors.