Scientists Cite Unread Papers

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Isaac Newton stated that “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Scientific breakthroughs are built on previous discoveries. So it’s not surprising that most scientific papers contain a large number of references. This may seem that the researchers have read all their references. However, having read several scientific papers over the years, it’s not new to me to find wrong citations and references. This made me wonder if those researchers even read the sources they’re citing.

Two researchers named Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury of the University of California did a study regarding this issue. They observed in a citation database that errors in references are pretty common, but the strange thing is many of these mistakes are exactly the same. This means either all those researchers coincidentally committed the same mistakes or they just copied the references of other research papers without reading those references themselves. It’s obvious that the latter is more feasible.

Hence, they studied several individual papers to see how prevalent this practice is. One of the papers they studied was an influential paper on the structure of two-dimensional crystals published in 1973. According to New Scientist:

They found it had been cited in other papers 4300 times, with 196 citations containing misprints in the volume, page or year. But despite the fact that a billion different versions of erroneous reference are possible, they counted only 45. The most popular mistake appeared 78 times.

The pattern suggests that 45 scientists, who might well have read the paper, made an error when they cited it. Then 151 others copied their misprints without reading the original. So for at least 77 per cent of the 196 misprinted citations, no one read the paper.

Now you may assume that the scientists who cited correctly have read their references more attentively. This may not be the case, stated Simkin and Roychowdhury:

The model shows that the distribution of misprinted citations of the 1973 paper could only have arisen if 78 per cent of all the citations, including the correct ones, were “cut and pasted” from a secondary source. Many of those who got it right were simply lucky.

Unfortunately, Simkin and Roychowdhury said that this paper was not an isolated case. A dozen other famous papers they studied also showed similar patterns. The problem is that scientists trust the words of others (especially if they are well-known people) without doing their own research and verification from the original sources.

I understand that doing “fake citations” is a fairly common trick employed by several college students. So, perhaps, those scientists had picked up this bad habit during college and continued using it.

Why You Shouldn’t Cite Unread Sources?

  • Maybe the summary given by the secondary source is faulty or missing some vital things.
  • The volume number, page numbers or year of publication might be given incorrectly. This would result to copying the wrong citations of others.
  • You may unknowingly spread misinformation and misconceptions further. As a researcher, you have the responsibility to avoid that kind of thing from happening.
  • Your credibility may crumble. Note that this is also true even if you have read your sources. When you cite a source, it’s akin to putting your professional reputation on the line since that source may be incorrect which could potentially affect the reliability of your research. Thus, don’t just rely on a few sources. Read as much as you can to get the big picture.

As with any rule, there are exceptions. There may be some sources which are too obscure or the original source is written in another language that you can’t read. In those cases, you have to cite both the original source and the reference wherein you found the original source cited. Depending on the citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.), phrases like “cited by”, “as cited in” or “qtd. in” are used.



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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is

14 thoughts on “Scientists Cite Unread Papers

  1. Given the mass of research out there, I’m not surprised that this occurs, though it is unfortunate and disappointing. I’ve had to read various scholarly articles for essays in school, and always wondered how long it took the researchers to read all of the papers to which they cited. According to this information, it’s not unlikely that they didn’t actually read all of them! When I research myself I endeavor to find the original of a work that an author cites whenever possible. Like you noted, though, sometimes this isn’t feasible. I might not have the resources to verify all of the citations, and so must rely on the credibility of the author.
    Have you written any research papers, Edmark? Based on all the work on your blog, you strike me as a researcher.


    1. Finding the original souces can be difficult to those who don’t have access to research databases. This is unfortunate since research papers should be open access. in my opinion. There are several movements now that are trying to make this possible and they are progressing, albeit slowly.

      Anyway, the pressure to produce more research these days affects the quality of research papers. This article from Nature offers several points to ponder:

      I have ghostwritten several papers before, Ghostwriting in mathematics is a lot more profitable (provided that you know who to reach) than publishing your own works and I needed the money badly back then. In the future, I’d like to write some research papers in my name.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sure that they read a few words of the abstract. As soon as they found the evidence they needed to cherry pick, they were on to googling or searching PubMed for the next popsicle stick in their science project.

    Liked by 3 people

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