Seven sins of scientists: starting with failure to cite

garden of edenThese days when we think of the words “scientific” and “sin”, we might conjure up an image of a stem cell scientist being called a sinner by extremist anti-stem cell activists.

As you know, I think that is bogus.

In this article that’s not the kind of scientific sin I’m talking about. Rather, I’m talking about “sin” when scientists do very rotten, even disastrous things to each other and/or the community at large.

Most scientists do not participate in these kind of actions, but some do and I’m concerned that number might be increasing. However, perhaps scientific sins have been around forever. For example, many believe that Watson and Crick essentially stole the structure of DNA from the genius Rosalind Franklin, who got little credit, based on her famous “Photograph 51” (see below)Rosalind Franklin. Witness this quote from Crick and Watson in corresponding with Franklin’s PI Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize with them without Franklin, in a BBC piece:

“We hope our little burglary will at least produce a united front in your group!”

Little burglary?

I’m not old enough (although I might feel like after a grant rejection) to know exactly what went on in the whole DNA structure sage, but unfortunately, during my career I’ve seen scientists doing stuff so bad I’d call it a scientific sin and I don’t mean coveting their lab neighbor’s wife.

What do I mean?

Read on and find out. This is the first in a 7-part series on these sins of scientists.

Today I am focusing on a sin I call “failure to cite”.

By “failure to cite” I mean a scientist, when publishing a paper, failing to cite the literature that is most appropriate and relevant to the subject of their work.

Why is this so bad I call it a sin?

The reason this is “sin-worthy” is that some scientists let non-scientific reasons dictate their decisions on the papers that they cite or do not cite, and this ends up hurting science.

Let’s take a hypothetical example.

Dr. J publishes a paper in a big name journal. In his paper he chooses not to cite even a single paper of Dr. M even though Dr. M has previously published papers in the same area that are from a scientific perspective without question the most important for background to Dr. J’s paper. However, Dr. J chooses not to cite Dr. M’s papers perhaps because he wants his own paper to seem more novel that it really isOr perhaps Dr. J omits Dr. M’s papers because Dr. J views Dr. M as an enemy. Does that sound hyperbolic? It isn’t. There are numerous scientists who literally view other scientists as enemies.

Of course this can spiral out of control as Dr. M may retaliate and not cite Dr. J’s papers and so on. Dr. J may choose to not even cite the papers of Dr. M’s trainees who go on to be independent.

Some scientists do not get involved in the whole “enemy” thing, but nevertheless routinely choose their citations such that they omit those that might reduce the apparent novelty of their paper. By giving into temptation and doing this, scientists are hoping that their own paper will get more citations and be viewed as more important, but in the process they are in fact leaving out some of the most important papers in their field.

Why is failure to cite so bad?

I consider it a scientific sin because as the scientific and, in the biomedical sciences, patient communities read papers they look to the citations as guidance and also as a portal for further education. Thus, papers that have citations that were chosen for personal or political reasons rather than scientific reasons mislead and confuse others. “Failure to cite” is very damaging and yet it happens fairly often.

Am I surprised about this? Not really. As I said, scientists are no more moral than anyone else. However, it is disappointing and harmful.


  1. I can give examples from my career to this phenomenon going back many years. However, more concerning to me is the trend to not citing papers older that a couple of years. We are rediscovering the wheel over and over again because of the focus on the latest results, which may just be revealing the same thing that was known through other technologies decades previously.

  2. Then there is the problem with super-specialization of groups and journals… different groups that end up doing very similar things but seemingly each oblivious of the other. The literature is so huge…

    Most failures to cite are not malicious. Sadly, some are.

    While it may or may not be true that “scientists” are not “more moral” than the rest, I think that science has intrinsic moral value. The scientific method is based upon deliberately and rigorously testing ones ideas against observation and measurement. In my view, that’s a morally correct way of thinking — at least compared to belief systems based upon authority and/or personal preferences.

    The scientific ideal is something worth aspiring to, morally speaking.

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