December 3, 2020

Sloppy Science

New Scientist reports on how scientists prepare their papers for publication:

A cunning statistical study has exposed scientists as sloppy reporters. When they write up their work and cite other people’s papers, most do not bother to read the original.

The discovery was made by Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury of the University of California, Los Angeles, who study the way information spreads around different kinds of networks.

They noticed in a citation database that misprints in references are fairly common, and that a lot of the mistakes are identical. This suggests that many scientists take short cuts, simply copying a reference from someone else’s paper rather than reading the original source.

Can you spot the fallacy here? (And if you can, why couldn’t the editors of New Scientist?)

The fallacy is in the assumption that if a scientist copied the text of a citation from another paper, this proves that he never read the cited paper. No justification is offered for this assumption, and it seems dubious on its face.

Certainly it contradicts my experience. Many times I have read a paper one day and looked up its bibliographic information elsewhere on another day. If there are typos in the citations in some of my papers – and I’m sure there are a few – that is unfortunate but it doesn’t mean I haven’t read the cited papers.

I’ll bet Simkin and Roychowdhury spent plenty of time double-checking every detail of their citations. Perhaps they should have spent more time thinking about the contents of their own paper.