Inappropriate Citations – A Scholarly Integrity Issue

In our class before Thanksgiving Break we talked about scholarly integrity, particularly plagiarism. In reading the Office of Research Integrity’s guidelines on avoiding plagiarism, a few surprised me. They were related to a pet peeve of mine, inaccurate and inappropriate referencing! While I consider this certainly an issue of integrity, I didn’t think it would fall in to this list on plagiarism.

What do I mean by inaccurate or inappropriate citations. Ever read a line in a paper that has a reference to support it and think, “YES! Finally, I’ve been looking for evidence of this”, only to go that source and realize it doesn’t support the statement the authors of the previous paper made? I know I have, and it is irritating!

Example: I was reading a paper on nutrition recommendations for bodybuilders. Since I am doing some work in this area myself, I have been trying to find references for the increase in the interest and participation in this sport in recent years. I thought I hit the jackpot when the 1st line of the paper read: “The popularity of natural bodybuilding is increasing rapidly. In the United States, over 200 amateur natural (drug tested) bodybuilding contests occurred during 2013 and the number of contests is expected to increase in 2014 [1].”  Going to the reference list, you can imagine my disapointment when this is listed as the 1st citation: “Scott BR, Lockie RG, Knight TJ, Clark AC, De Jonge XAKJ: A comparison of methods to quantify the in-season training load of professional soccer players. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 2013, 8:195-202.” This is blatantly incorrect, and I’m confused as to how this was not caught by an author, reviewer, or editor before being officially published.

Usually the instances of incorrect citations are more subtle, and can’t always be detected from the title of the reference alone. These errors are typically only located after reading the abstract or entire paper referenced, which makes me think the authors never read the paper themselves before citing it! Examples: “…xyz has been shown in humans”, yet the author cites a rodent model; “a strong link has been found between abc and 123“, yet the author references a study which addressed abc, but did not link it to 123; and so on.

Here are the guidelines from the ORI related to inappropriate practices related to citations:

Guideline 14: Authors are strongly urged to double-check their citations. Specifically, authors should always ensure that each reference notation appearing in the body of the manuscript corresponds to the correct citation listed in the reference section and vice versa and that each source listed in the reference section has been cited at some point in the manuscript. In addition, authors should also ensure that all elements of a citation (e.g., spelling of authors’ names, volume number of journal, pagination) are derived directly from the original paper, rather than from a citation that appears on a secondary source. Finally, authors should ensure that credit is given to those authors who first reported the phenomenon being studied.

Guideline 15: The references used in a paper should only be those that are directly related to its contents. The intentional inclusion of references of questionable relevance for purposes of manipulating a journal’s or a paper’s impact factor or a paper’s chances of acceptance is an unacceptable practice.

Guideline 16: Authors should follow a simple rule: Strive to obtain the actual published paper. When the published paper cannot be obtained, cite the specific version of the material being used, whether it is conference presentation, abstract, or an unpublished manuscript.
What are your research related pet peeves?


A PhD Student at Virginia Tech. This blog was created as a class requirement for Contemporary Pedagogy - Spring 2013. 

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