How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – Not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence

There are two linked things that really annoy me when I come across them in the scientific literature; first the habit of citing citations within a paper alphabetically rather than chronologically, for example, cereal aphid fecundity is affected by the growth stage of their host plant (Leather & Dixon 1981; Watt, 1979).  Flattering as it is to get my name ahead of my old friend Allan Watt’s by virtue of the position L in the alphabet, my paper was a follow-up to Allan’s and therefore he has scientific precedence and the citation should read (Watt, 1979; Leather & Dixon, 1981).

The second, which is perhaps much more serious, is the habit some authors in recent years have adopted; namely, inappropriate citation of authors in relation to discovery of a particular fact.  So for example, suppose an author writing a paper about barley infestation by cereal aphids, wants to support his/her arguments by saying that barley is probably more susceptible to aphid attack because as it grows quickly there is a trade-off in respect to  reduced plant defences.  Instead of going to a primary source, the author remembers reading in another paper, for sake of this argument, a paper by Rowntree et al., (2010) studying growth of the grain aphid Sitobion avenae on barley, where those authors in their discussion mention that barley is probably poorly defended against herbivory, in turn citing Coley et al., (1985). Our fictional author in his/her paper, now states, “in my experiment barley plants were more susceptible to aphid attack than the slower growing grass, Festuca ovina, probably because plant resistance against herbivory in barley, was reduced due to the trade-off between rapid growth and defensive chemistry (Rowntree et al., 2010)”.  This is of course, a totally inappropriate citation, because a) Rowntree and colleagues did not report any such data and b) the paper by Coley et al., did not deal with barley.  We thus have a totally erroneous chain of citations.  In this case I have invented the whole scenario.  I can assure you however, that as an Editor, referee and reader, I have come across similar erroneous citation chains on many occasions in the recent past and not just in undergraduate student project reports or MSc and PhD theses.


So how could Stephen Jay Gould have written Macbeth, which I am sure you all know is actually by William Shakespeare.  Well, in Dinosaur in a Haystack (Gould, 1996), in an essay entitled Dinomania, Gould quotes the first line of Macbeth’s soliloquy, “If it were done, ‘twere well it were done quickly”.  Now, whilst no scientist, or I hope any scholar, would state in a piece of work, something like “Macbeth wondered if he should kill King Duncan (Gould, 1996)”, many authors seem to have no problems with doing exactly the same sort of thing in their introductions or discussions in scientific papers.  Please, please, check your sources and give credit where it’s due.

Coley, P.D., Bryant, J.P. & Chapin, F.S., (1985) Resource availability and plant herbivore defense Science, 230, 895-899.

Gould, S.J. (1996)  Dinosaur in a Haystack, Jonathan Cape, London

Rowntree, J. K., A. McVennon & Preziosi, R.F.  (2010). Plant genotype mediates the effects of nutrients on aphids. Oecologia ,163,  675-679.

Postscript.  Less serious, but equally annoying (at least to me), and also an example of poor scientific practice, is the habit of only citing work that refers to your own particular study area, and either ignoring or not looking for studies involving the same concepts but for example, involving insects instead of mammals or being too lazy to search the older literature.   I have previously published a short diatribe about this subject (Leather, 2004) so will not repeat myself here.

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel: on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling.  Basic & Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.


Filed under Bugbears

5 responses to “How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – Not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence

  1. Dear Simon, Of course you are absolutely right. And let’s hope your diatribe persuades people to behave better. But isn’t what you are complaining about just human frailty? Authors are sometimes lazy and often pushed for time. Regrettably, they recite previously cited papers without reading them, Usually they take the details of the reference direct from the citation, often leading to garbled paper trails of incorrect bibliographic details. Such bad behaviour isn’t new: sloth has been a deadly sin for a long time! What IS new is that reading papers on the screen from XML or PDF makes such cutting and pasting so much easier (and therefore even more tempting). All the more reason to carry on being vigilant! Keep on keeping up those editorial standards! But even with your own phenomenal work rate, it isn’t going to be possible to make sin extinct! All the best, Stuart


    • Thanks Stuart

      yes totally agree, cut & paste and on-screen viewing are likely to make the problem worse, but up to us as editors, referees, teachers and PhD examiners to keep on banging the drum. Hard work I know, but …..


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