Comment: citation shortcomings: peccadilloes or plagiarism?

Published in Interfaces, Vol. 38, No. 2, March-April 2008, pp. 136-137. This is one of three comments on Malcolm Wright and J. Scott Armstrong, "The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge", ibid., pp. 125-132

Brian Martin

Citation shortcomings seldom become a burning issue among scholars. One possible reason is the difficulty of studying the problem. While it is relatively straightforward to assess whether the words and letters in citations are correct, it is far more difficult to determine whether authors have correctly chosen and used sources.

Wright and Armstrong show one way to do this: examine the presence or absence of citations to a particular source known to be essential - in their case, Armstrong and Overton (1977) - and, when it is present, assess whether it has been correctly interpreted and implemented. This exemplary study reveals near-universal neglect or misuse of a relevant source.

Another approach is to know the sources in a field comprehensively and to assess all the citations of papers in the field to look for both omissions and inappropriate inclusions. MacRoberts and MacRoberts (1989) used this method and reported a substantial level of citation bias and inaccuracy. They concluded that citations capture only a small proportion of the influence on a scientific paper: many sources that influence a paper are not cited.

Before assessing the significance of these findings, it is worth outlining some purposes of using citations: (1) to support an argument; (2) to indicate to readers the most important and useful studies in the field; (3) to acknowledge sources of ideas, methods, or quotations; and (4) to impress readers, referees, and editors. Ideally, the fourth purpose would be superfluous because citations made for the first three purposes would be sufficiently impressive.

For each of these purposes, there are conventions and violations of these conventions. For example, research students are often told to acknowledge sources of ideas. However, they soon learn that convention dictates that they omit some types of sources, such as media stories and informal conversations. Ravetz (1971) recommends giving detailed acknowledgements, for example thanking the person who recommended a particular source. This level of precision in acknowledgement is rare. Most who contribute ideas informally are lucky to receive a mention in a list of people thanked.

Wright and Armstrong argue that an author should read all sources cited. This is reasonable when papers are short. However, is it necessary to read an entire book, or just enough of it to get the basic idea or to check a quotation and its context? This also applies to an article: is it necessary to read it thoroughly and carefully, or is reading the abstract and conclusion sufficient? Much depends on the purpose of the citation. If the source is methodologically central, then careful reading is essential. However, if the purpose is to indicate the place of the source in a survey of the field, then a more superficial understanding may suffice. How essential is it that, in citing A&O in this comment, I carefully read it? (This question is doubly rhetorical because I added this citation to highlight this point!)

Wright and Armstrong are concerned primarily with faulty citation as a factor in poor research. There are other important issues. One is gift citation - an author cites a supervisor, patron, editor, potential referee, or other person in an attempt to curry favor. Another is rivalry citation omission - an author does not cite obvious sources to prevent a rival or enemy from gaining proper credit. I have heard of a number of such cases. However, care must be taken in making a judgment: it is easy to attribute malice when ignorance is a possible explanation.

When an author cites an unsighted source - namely, a source the author has not looked up, seen, or read - the proper practice is to reference the secondary source. For example, I might refer to Eichorn and Yankauer (1987), as cited in Wright and Armstrong (2007). However, if I cite Eichorn and Yankauer without obtaining or reading the paper, instead just copying the citation from Wright and Armstrong without acknowledging them as a source, this would be a type of plagiarism - plagiarism of secondary sources. Given the great number of citation errors in the literature, this seems to be common; nonetheless, it is seldom given the stigmatizing label "plagiarism."

Why are citation shortcomings not taken more seriously? One explanation is that fraud in scholarship is defined in a narrow fashion, with only extensive plagiarism, manufactured data, or alteration of results deemed to be fraud. By this definition, only a few cases of fraud come to light; by denouncing them, the rest of the scholarly community is absolved.

A broader definition of fraud would include exaggerations in grant applications, exploitation of subordinates, omissions and misleading claims in curricula vitae, sloppy scholarship - and plagiarism of secondary sources. According to this broader definition, many scholars are guilty, including some who have risen to high ranks by exploiting the work of others. Arguably, a narrow definition of fraud helps to maintain the hierarchy within research institutions (Martin 1992).

Promoting better citation practices would raise the quality of scholarship. It would also increase the amount of work required to make a scholarly contribution, thereby preventing many researchers from publishing as much, and some from publishing at all. Therefore, the institutionalized pressure to publish for career reasons is one of the biggest obstacles to improved citation practices.

I thank Juan Miguel Campanario, John Lesko, Michael MacRoberts, and Malcolm Wright for their useful comments.


Armstrong, J. S., T. S. Overton. 1977. Estimating nonresponse bias in mail surveys. J. Marketing Res. 14 (3) 396-402.

MacRoberts, M. H., B. R. MacRoberts. 1989. Problems of citation analysis: A critical review. J. Amer. Soc. Infor. Sci. 40 (5) 342-349.

Martin, B. 1992. Scientific fraud and the power structure of science. Prometheus 10 (1) 83-98.

Ravetz, J. R. 1971. Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.

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