Letter to The Scientist

Dear Scientist,

last week you published an interesting article by Christian Specht about Mutations of citations. Dr. Specht found more than 600 wrong citations for the paper by Laemmli [Laemmli 1970], which has been cited at least 88633 times according to Scopus.

Laemmli UK. Cleavage of Structural Proteins during the Assembly of the Head of Bacteriophage T4. Nature. 1970;227:680-685. DOI:10.1038/227680a0

I was intrigued by the “sequence alignment” in Fig. 1a which clearly demonstrated that point mutations at 227 and 680 are particularly common, and that some mutations are inherited between overlapping groups of scientists. Of particular interest is the “complete nonsense mutation” that attributes the citation to the journal Science.

However, the author failed to demonstrate that the citation mutations had a paper-not-found phenotype or whether they were simply silent mutations. Missing is also an analysis of whether the mutations

  • originated with the paper authors (who by now should all be using reference managers that automatically import citations),
  • were introduced by the publisher during manuscript production (many journals use tools such as eXtyles to check and fix citations in manuscripts), or
  • first appeared in the scientific databases that stored the citations (Specht used Web of Science).

Of particular interest would be whether there is a decrease in mutation rate over time, as automated tools have increased the fidelity of the citation process, and whether any citation style was particularly prone to mutations (no citation style uses checksums). As a researcher I suggest that the burden of proofreading should rest not with paper authors, and that journal and database publishers invest in appropriate citation repair mechanisms. And please use the DOI, even the paper by Laemmli [Laemmli 1970] has one.

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10 Responses to Letter to The Scientist

  1. mangrist says:

    Maybe it’s time for a eugenics revival…

  2. What about convergent evolution? That is, maybe some of these arose separately in different lineages?

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    These are good suggestions. And I think that in order to understand citation evolution, we have the to use deep citation sequencing (e.g. with the CrossCheck technology), which goes beyond the citation and looks at fulltext manuscripts. For the work by Laemmli it would probably suffice to look at methods sections of papers and study the inheritance patterns there. This systematic analysis would then allow us to look at the citatome of a paper.

  4. Frank Norman says:

    I wonder whether the growth of self-archiving will cause an increase in mutations? It would be interesting to repeat the study with some physics papers that have been in Arxiv for some years.

    Also the practice of “early online publication” can cause problems. When a paper published online at the end of the year is published in print at the beginning of the following year, then the reference can legitimately have two different publication years.

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  7. rpg says:

    Hi Martin

    Christian has responded to you, and I’ve run a cheeky poll off the back of his comment.

  8. Martin Fenner says:

    Thanks Richard. I like Christian’s response and I recommend everybody takes the poll (Do you read the papers you cite?). My answer: “Yes: well, at least the abstracts and discussion.”

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