Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The joy of citation

One of the things I miss most about research is reading scientific papers. I try to keep up with the literature, but there’s much less incentive when your entire career doesn’t depend on knowing what’s been published lately. I dutifully scan the tables of contents that arrive so frequently in my inbox, and I read at least the abstracts of the papers that show up in my weekly PubCrawler searches, but that’s about it.

Now that I’m no longer actively publishing my own papers, I get my kicks from other people citing my previous work. We scientists are not immune to vanity – in fact, given the pathetic salaries and dubious job security of most researchers, validation by our peers is often all we have left. My papers have been cited quite often, but usually only as one of several studies lumped in together to provide support for one of the authors’ minor assertions. The typical citation would be “this phenomenon has previously been observed in similar studies involving other genes (5-11)”, with my paper as reference #9.

I recently came across a paper by Lydia Mare and Marco Trinchera that did not fit this model. The authors based their entire study on two of my previous papers. In fact, the first two sentences of their abstract basically mirrored the major conclusions of the earlier of my two papers. This was enough to prompt me to read the new manuscript from start to finish, a first since I left the lab.

The contents of the introduction and methods sections also seemed very familiar. The introduction described much of my work in more detail than the abstract, and many of the methods used were very similar to my own. In fact, reading the paper almost gave me a sense of déjà vu. Given more time and funding I could easily imagine myself carrying out the very same experiments.

The questions asked by these unknown but methodologically familiar researchers were obviously prompted by the gaps in my original study. The answers to those questions were more or less consistent with my own findings and predictions. There was a sense almost of relief – despite my confidence in the accuracy of my own papers, science depends on the independent verification and replication of previous results, and my work has now passed its first true test of this kind. Even the one result from my first paper that could not be replicated in this new study can be easily explained away by differences in experimental approach. I would like to express my gratitude that the authors apparently agreed with this opinion!

Overall, the paper I read in such detail today confirmed and reinforced my own work. The sense of validation I feel is tempered by a little jealousy that I didn’t get to perform and report this work myself. I wonder if these authors thought about the possibility that someone from my former lab was still working on this project, and that they might be scooped before publication. I came very close to being scooped myself once and I can clearly remember the feelings of panic and nausea that I experienced before my paper was eventually accepted. I’m very grateful that the fear of being scooped by a lab with a potential head start on the same project did not prevent this work from being carried out. Not only do I have one more citation to add to my growing list, but I got to read another part of the story to which I once contributed. These stories never end, but hopefully I will get to read some further chapters from my desk on the dark side.


  1. Many years ago, I worked in a USDA lab, where number of publications seemed to be the main criterion for promotion. I thought number of citations would be a little better, but some citatios should count more than others, as you suggest. I proposed that candidates for promotion should have to submit the actual text of each recent citation. I figured the ultimate compliment would be citation in the abstract of a paper. A month after I made this suggestion, I was cited in an abstract. The paper was entirely devoted to criticism of one of my papers! I hurried to write a rebuttal, and managed to get it published in the same journal. That rebuttal is the only one of my papers that has never been cited.

    I now get more blog visits each day than most of my papers get citations (about as many as Pharyngula gets per second!) but I guess a blog visit is more like someone glancing at your abstract (or maybe even just the title) than citing your paper in their abstract.

    I hope your new career is going well and that some of the things you learned in the lab (and on your ongoing reading) will have a positive impact in the real world. I love generating new knowledge, but sometimes I get discouraged by the gap between knowledge and application.

  2. Thank you for your comment and encouragement - the very first comment on my very first post! And here's me thinking that no-one would be reading this!

    Your proposal sounds like an excellent criterion for assessment. Maybe the reason it wasn't implemented was that it would create far too much reading for senior management.

    I sympathise with your predicament re: the paper criticising your work. There was a definite heart in throat moment when I first came across the paper that focused so closely on my own work. I'm glad your rebuttal was published! Did you know the group whose criticism you had to refute?

    Now that I know people are actually reading this I'd better scurry off and come up with another post. Thanks again for commenting!

  3. I read that you had a paper featured in "reasons to believe". I felt bad for you, and wondered if there's something you could do in response.
    Then I googled myself and low and behold, they have one on a recent paper of mine too!

    Could you/we start a website where scientists can publicly rebut this garbage? Maybe we could call it "reasons not to believe" so that google hits will pick up both?

  4. Hi JB

    I think that's a fantastic idea. There must be a lot of us in the same situation as they will try to twist anything to their own advantage. A site where researchers can publicly refute the use of their papers on RTB would be great. It would just take a little time to extract authors' contact information from the cited references.

    Unfortunately I don't have much experience with website design - this blog is my first effort and I obviously just used a pre-designed template. Do you have the right skills? Do you know an easy way to get a website up and running? Once it's up I would be more than happy to start emailing people for input. I'm sure a mention by PZ would go a long way, so that should be an early goal of the project!! I will do some asking around and see what I can turn up!


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