Scientific Researchers Routinely Fudge Citations
By Mike Martin

October 6, 2003 12:46PM

"The probability of repeating someone else's misprint accidentally is 1 in 10,000. There should be almost no repeat misprints by coincidence." Yet, repeat misprints appear in nearly 80 percent of the papers UCLA professors Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury studied.'s IT advances -- which usually start out in today's academic journals -- may be the product of cheating, say UCLA researchers who claim that scientists routinely lie about the amount of research they perform before publishing their innovations.

Using a cunning schoolchild's most common ploy -- copying someone else's work -- scientists fill their bibliographies with titles from papers they never read, claim UCLA electrical engineering professors Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury.

Reading, Citing and 'Rithmetic

"We discovered that the majority of scientific citations are copied from the lists of references used in other papers," Simkin and Roychowdhury write in a paper whose title admonishes, "Read Before You Cite!"

An ingenious study of the statistics of scientific misprints led the two researchers to conclude that major innovations may, in part, be the products of lazy fudge factoring.

"We discovered a method of estimating what percentage of people who cited a paper had actually read it," said Simkin, a specialist in semiconductor research.

At the end of a paper, for instance, one scientist cites "Read Before You Site!" misspelling "cite." Another scientist then copies the citation -- as written -- for his own paper, without reading the original.

"Read Before You Site!" ends up cited, erroneously and unread, in paper after paper, as one scientist after another simply cuts and pastes the misspelled citation without reading the original paper (with its properly spelled title).

"The probability of repeating someone else's misprint accidentally is 1 in 10,000," Roychowdhury and Simkin claim. "There should be almost no repeat misprints by coincidence."

Yet, repeat misprints appear in nearly 80 percent of the papers the two authors studied, leading them to conclude that "only about 20 percent of citers read the original. Repeat misprints are due to copying some one else's reference, without reading the paper in question."

Great or Fate?

Scientists measure the "greatness" of papers by the number of citations each paper receives -- a measure that may be determined more by fate and less by renown if citations are routinely -- and blindly -- copied.

SPIRES, the high-energy Relevant Products/Servicesphysics literature database, divides papers into six categories based on citation numbers, Simkin explained.

"'Renowned papers' are those with 500 or more citations," he added.

Out of 24,000 papers published between 1975 and 1994 in the prestigious journal "Physical Review D," forty-four papers achieved "renowned" status with 500 or more citations.

Asking the question, "What is the mathematical probability that 44 of 24,000 papers would be cited 500 or more times in 19 years?" Roychowdhury and Simkin found the answer to be 1 in 10^500, or effectively, zero.

In other words, it is a mathematical impossibility that 44 of 24,000 papers would achieve "greatness" by these measures, unless another mechanism -- copying, for instance -- were at work.

If so, the so-called "Matthew Effect" would take over after a few copied citations, the authors say.

"This way, a paper that already was cited is likely to be cited again, and after it is cited again, it is even more likely to be cited in the future," claims Roychowdhury, a specialist in the research of high-performance and parallel computing systems. "In other words, 'unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance,'" he quoted from the Gospel of Matthew.

A Comedy of Copying

In a world rocked by recent ethical lapses -- WorldCom, Enron and Adelphia, for instance -- scientists cheating on their homework might be another scandal waiting to break.

Not so, Roychowdhury told NewsFactor. "Our work provides evidence of human dynamics in the publication process," he said. "I really do not view this as a scandal."

Simkin agreed. "I would not label this a 'stealth scandal,' but 'a comedy of misprints,'" he told NewsFactor.