We all make mistakes – but when it comes to the scientific literature, too many authors are making critical mistakes in their list of references, making it difficult for readers to retrieve a cited paper. We spoke with Marilyn Oermann, the Thelma M. Ingles Professor of Nursing at the Duke University School of Nursing, who has studied this problem extensively in the nursing literature.
Retraction Watch: You’ve published multiple papers looking at reference problems in nursing research. What are the main types of “reference problems” that usually occur?
Marilyn Oermann: Errors in references can be major or minor. A major error is one that prevents retrieving the cited article or other publication or makes it difficult to retrieve it. For example, including the wrong journal title or volume number or misspelling the first author’s name would be major errors. Some reference errors, though, are minor — such as misspelling a coauthor’s name or having a punctuation error. Minor errors do not affect retrieving the cited material.
In some of the clinical specialty nursing journals we analyzed, errors in author names were common. However, we later reanalyzed the references across all of our studies. There were 7,650 references, and we randomly selected 10% of the references from each journal to check their accuracy with the original publication. Of 765 references, the most common error was in the title of an article, such as missing or having incorrect words in the title (e.g., substituting tool for instrument). In a study of pediatric orthopedic literature, Davids et al. (2010) also found that errors in the article title were the most common.
RW: What are the overall rates of reference problems you’ve seen in the nursing papers you’ve examined?
MO: In our studies of nursing journals, 28.4% of the references had errors.
RW: I would expect that some researchers think of reference mistakes as simple copyediting errors. But what is the potential impact of reference problems?
MO: If an error in a reference limits the ability to find the cited article, or makes it more time consuming to locate it, many readers will not bother to continue to search for it. The articles that readers are not able to find might be particularly relevant to studies they are doing or to clinical questions they need to answer for their practice. As an author, if your name is misspelled in a reference, it is less likely other authors will find and then cite your paper, affecting not only the citations of your work but also the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. As an editor, in my opinion, errors in references cast doubt on the quality of the journal.
RW: To what extent are reference problems the result of deliberate intent or simple ignorance? Do you think scientists are getting adequate training in proper citations and referencing?
MO: I do not think errors in references are deliberate but instead are the result of copying and pasting reference information into manuscripts and not checking its accuracy. Most of our studies of the nursing literature were done prior to widespread use of reference management software such as EndNote. Studies on reference accuracy need to be replicated to determine if errors are less common now considering there is greater use of reference management software. However, even with this software, you still need to be sure full and accurate information is being inputted into it. You should double check that references generated by reference management software are properly formatted, e.g., page numbers and doi’s are not left off when they should be present.
RW: Since your research is largely confined to nursing research, to what extent do you suspect these results apply to other fields?
MO: A Cochrane review published in 2008, around the same time many of our studies were done, found a median reference error rate of 38%— more than 1/3 of the references cited in articles in biomedical journals had an error. In Davids et al. (2010) study, the citation error rate across the journals they reviewed was 26%, which is consistent with our nursing journal studies.
RW: Do you suspect that journals with relatively high impact factors – say 10 and up – may be more exacting in their reference requirements?
MO: In the 2010 study of the pediatric orthopedic literature, there was a significant inverse correlation between the impact factor of the journal and reference error rate. The authors suggested that in high impact journals, more attention may be given to the accuracy of references by authors, editors, and staff.
RW: How often do you suspect these references can reasonably be assigned to typesetting or publisher issues?
MO: I do not think errors in references are from typesetting or publisher issues. These errors are made prior to that phase in the process. In my own experience as an author and editor, many of the queries authors receive on their page proofs relate to errors to correct or [add?] missing information in the references.
RW: Does the expansion of internet resources make it easier for researchers to get references right?
MO: I think the expansion of internet resources has created more reference problems. Some authors do not check the quality of information at websites they include in their papers, and the information at the website can change rapidly. On the reference list, the URLs may no longer be available; the author may include the URL to the main page but not to the actual document referred to in the article; and there may be missing or incorrect information with the reference.
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