Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rebuttal papers don’t work, or citation practices are flawed?

Brian McGill posted an interesting follow up to Marc’s question about whether journals should allow post-publication review in the form of responses to published papers. I don’t know that I have any more clarity as to the answer to that question after reading both (excellent) posts. Being idealistic, I think that when there are clear errors, they should be corrected, and that editors should be invested in identifying and correcting problems in papers in their journals. Based on the discussions I’ve had with co-authors about a response paper we’re working on, I’d also like to believe that rebuttals can produce useful conversations, and ultimately be illuminating for a field. But pragmatically, Brian McGill pointed out that it seems that rebuttals rarely make an impact (citing Banobi et al 2011). Many times this was due to the fact that citations of flawed papers continued, and “were either rather naive or the paper was being cited in a rather generic way”.

Citations are possibly the most human part of writing scientific articles. Citations form a network of connections between research and ideas, and are the written record of progress in science. But they're also one of the clearest points at which biases, laziness, personal relationships (both friendships and feuds), taxonomic biases, and subfield myopia are apparent. So why don't we focus on improving citation practices? 

Ignoring more extreme problems (coercive citations, citation fraud, how to cite supplementary materials, data and software), as the literature grows more rapidly and pressure to publish increases, we have to acknowledge that it is increasingly difficult to know the literature thoroughly enough to cite broadly. A couple of studies found that 60-70% of citations were scored as accurate (Todd et al. 2007; Teixeira et al. 2013) (Whether you can see that as too low or pretty high depends on your personality). Key problems were the tendency to cite 'lazily' (citing reviews or synthetic pieces rather than delve into the literature within) or 'naively' (citing high profile pieces in an offhand way without considering rebuttals and follow ups (a key point of the Banobi et al. piece)). At least one limited analysis (Drake et al. 2013) showed that citations tended to be much more accurate in higher IF journals (>5), perhaps (speculating) due to better peer review or copy editing. 

Todd et al (2007) suggest that journals institute random audits of citations to ensure authors take greater care. This may be a good idea that is difficult to institute in journals where peer reviewers are already in short supply. It may also be useful to have rebuttal papers considered as part of the total communication surrounding a paper - the full text would include them, they would be automatically downloaded in the PDF, there would be a tab (in addition to author information, supplementary material, references, etc) for responses. 

More generally - why don't we learn how to cite well as students? The vast majority of advice on citation practices with a quick google search regards the need to avoiding plagiarism and stylistic concerns. Some of it is philosophical, but I have never heard a deep discussion of questions like, 'What’s an appropriate number of citations – for an idea?'; 'For a manuscript?'; 'How deep do I cite? (Do I need to go to Darwin?)'. It would be great if there were a consensus advice publication, like the sort the BES is so good at on best practices in citation.

Which is to say, that I still hope that rebuttals can work and be valuable.

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