everything you wanted to know about bad citation practices

Spinach, it turns out, is not an especially good source of iron. As the story goes, people believe it’s a good source of iron because of a misplaced decimal point in a publication in the 1930s, reporting the iron content of spinach as ten times its actual level. But this story is itself apocryphal, as Ole Bjørn Rekdal wonderfully narrates in a cheeky and insightful piece in the most recent Social Studies of Science, Academic Urban Legends.

Rekdal traces the origins of the spinach-decimal-point myth and uses the occasion to catalog bad citation practices, including citing secondary sources for a point made by an original source without verifying the original source, citing an original source instead of a secondary source but relying on the secondary source’s interpretation, and more. Rekdal also traces the urban legend that most academic papers are never cited back to a 1980s study that actually found no such thing. I highly recommend the entire short piece, it’s funny and surprising throughout. For example, Popeye never claimed that spinach made you stronger because it had a lot of iron, and Popeye’s creator apparently had vitamin A in mind instead!

In a related piece in the most recent Science, Technology, and Human Values, Rekdal examines the history of references to a piece of influential scholarly writing advice from the 1940s about, of all things, how best to cite! In Monuments to Academic Carelessness, Rekdal argues that the original advice by Katherine Bruner carefully distinguished between incomplete references (which can easily spotted by editors) and inaccurate references which “will stand in print as an annoyance to future investigators and a monument to the writer’s carelessness.” (quoted in Rekdal 2014b: 746, for completeness..).

In both cases, perhaps the deepest irony is that these errors of citation, reference, and substantive interpretation occur in papers designed explicitly to correct misperceptions and/or to improve our citations practices, with titles like “Facts and Fallacies: Stories of the Strange and Unusual” (Rekdal 2014a: 646) or “Reference list accuracy in social work journals” (Rekdal 2014b: 751). Apparently, we love a good urban legend about bad citations or a good quote about citation practices too much to actually verify them!

For a related piece in the popular press, I love this story, “I accidentally started a Wikipedia hoax”, about the surprising longevity of some drunken vandalism of the Amelia Bedalia Wikipedia entry to include a false origin story for the character (that she was based on a maid in Cameroon).

I think both the spinach-decimal point story and the Amelia Bedalia-Cameroon story would make excellent teaching examples for an introduction to research methods course. For similar purposes, I have used the story of a quote attributed to Einstein: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” (and variations) There is no evidence that Einstein ever said anything of the sort, and yet thousands of sites, including some academic books and articles, use the quote, with attribution to Einstein. But where the Einstein story is diffuse (I couldn’t find the source of the quote, or who first attributed it to Einstein*), the spinach story has lovely and identifiable twists and turns. In any event, if you ever wanted to read a couple of articles about bad citation and reference practices, I’d start with these:

Rekdal, Ole Bjørn. 2014a. “Academic urban legends.” Social Studies of Science 44(4):638–54.
Rekdal, Ole Bjørn. 2014b. “Monuments to Academic Carelessness The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of Katherine Frost Bruner.” Science, Technology & Human Values 39(5):744–58.

* Though apparently a Wikipedia editor had a bit more success than me. Here’s the entry from the Einstein quotes discussion page:

Earliest published variant I find attributing it to Einstein is “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called ‘research,’ would it?” from p. 272 of Natural Capitalism from 1999 (to see it, go to the amazon page and “search inside the book” for the word “Einstein”). Was attributed to Einstein on the internet befor that though, earliest I saw was this one from 26 April 1994. And if you search google books for “if we knew what we were doing” and “research” without Einstein, you find examples that just present it as an old joke and don’t mention Einstein, earliest I found was Yearbook of Procurement Articles by John Whelan from 1977, which says on p. 32 ‘I have a colleague who delights in saying, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t need research.”‘ And Organizing for Tomorrow: Reports from the Think-Tanks and the Trenches from 1985 has this comment on p. 19: ‘I flashed back on a quote that hung in one of my old offices for several years: “If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research.”‘ Hypnosifl 07:30, 3 December 2011 (UTC)

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

5 thoughts on “everything you wanted to know about bad citation practices”

  1. Great article! thanks for the tip. And I can add another example (unfortunately without the details needed). In 1970s in grad school, I tried to find the source data for a claim made in a then-recent textbook about “women vote more conservatively than men” and managed to roll it backwards from authors citing Fred Greenstein in the 60s to earlier sources citing earlier sources (to 50s, 40s and 30s articles). Finally encountered original data in an article published in 1920s about voters in Washington State under partial suffrage (where women’s votes needed to be kept separate from men’s) and prognosticating about the likely effects of full suffrage now. It was a revelation and a warning about trusting other scholars’ citations.

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  2. When I was in grad school at about the same time as Myra, I tracked down the claim that Black women had more job opportunities that Black men. As Black women’s unemployment and job status numbers were worse than Black men’s at that time, the claim made no sense. I traced it through citations to citations back to the original misinterpretation of a crosstab in another study.

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  3. Also, as a senior undergrad (albeit taking a grad course), part of the assignment for the final major paper was to look up all the citations in a major theoretical work. About half of them were wrong. Some were what you would think the article had said if you’d read only the title, but were not what the article said. Others were patently erroneous in a clerical sense: the volume number didn’t match the journal title and year. Looking up citations to my own generates similar patterns.

    Regarding quotations, there are also lots of famous quotations that have been rephrased over the original, typically in the direction of making them better rhetoric or more poetic than the original. I think I read an article about that, but of course I don’t have the citation around. ;-)

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    1. @Olderwoman – I’m not sure if this is the article you’re thinking of, but Robert Merton, David Sills, and Stephen Stigler wrote a wonderful piece on “Kelvin’s Dictum” about measurement and knowledge and misquotations thereof, particularly an abbreviation on the facade of a building at the University of Chicago:
      The Kelvin dictum and social science: An excursion into the history of an idea. I believe the paper is related to a lovely book that Sills and Merton put together on Social Science Quotations, an excellent academic stocking stuffer.


  4. Cool story! I just reblogged this… but I didn’t have time to check out the Rekdal piece you mentioned. Okay, I’m kidding, but it does seem like these errors of attribution, or flat out misconduct, are as big, or even bigger problems, that are being perpetuated in other venues than academic writing, including blogging. The double-edged sword of the digital revolution, as Rekdal points out (p.651).


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