Securing a foothold on the shoulders of giants

There are a multitude of ways to measure academic performance, but when it comes to peer-reviewed publications, there is one metric to rule them all: citations. Therefore, one of the most exciting things to find in my inbox is a Google Scholar notification that my work has been cited by a peer. But about half the time, when I skim the citing paper for context, I’m met with disillusionment rather than satisfaction. Here’s why…

Exhibit A [pdf]

In context, with this extremely vague point, the author is laying the foundation for their argument that researchers should exercise caution to conduct ethical research on “big data”. Unfortunately, my manuscript is entirely unrelated to the collection and analysis of “big data”.

Context: The author is laying the foundation for an argument that researchers from a variety of disciplines should make special ethical considerations when collecting, analyzing, and publishing “big data” studies, especially when it comes to social media.

My article, reference #8, is only tangentially related to the collection and analysis of tweets or “big data”. In fact, neither term can be found in the manuscript, as it is an entirely theoretical study of how the spread of vaccine refusal would impact an outbreak.

Exhibit B [pdf]

While my article [pdf] focused heavily on sentiment surrounding childhood vaccination programs, a quick CTRL+F for the string “twitter” also shows that it was not mentioned. The fact that the author may have mistakenly cited my paper while intending to reference a different paper [pdf] authored by the senior co-author, is at best, only a mitigating factor. 

Exhibit C [pdf]

Exhibit C

The text highlighted in blue would be an ideal place to cite each of the three points. Our model [pdf] supports each of these points and the introduction provides references from experimental literature spanning 50 years of research. However, those claims go unsupported while my article is used to support the second statement highlighted in yellow. In this case, it seems as if the author(s) may have cited the introduction, rather than original research.


An obvious caveat here is that, having published only two articles, I’m at an early stage of my career and therefore have comparably limited experience. Regardless, it is discouraging to reflect on the care with which I reference others’ work. That being said, we’re probably all guilty of stretching references beyond their scope at some point in our career.

One observation is that the mistakes I refer to typically come in multi-reference lines. Specifically, where a broad generalization is supported by a compendium of “related” papers.

The buck ultimately stops with the corresponding author, but as the sea of peer-reviewed publications continues to deepen, we all stand to gain from exercising more caution in exactly how we secure our footing on the shoulders of giants.


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Am I needlessly nitpicking?

How far do you go to track down and verify the context of a particular citation?

Under what conditions is it acceptable to cite an introduction rather than the article itself?

When is it acceptable to cite a review article rather than the original work it summarizes?

Other than self-policing, how would you address the problem of errant citations?

About ellscubed

A computational biologist whose passions lie at the nexus of evolutionary theory, epidemiology, and public outreach.
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