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cwinton • 5 years ago

We might as well admit that fake news has plenty of company in academic publication, in this case an unverifiable statement that for reasons unknown resonates as likely being true. It's the age old story of rumors spreading far faster than the truth. We all can cite similar examples, although I have to admit this is an unusually juicy one.

Joe S • 5 years ago

Nice try. Seems to me like the original "source" was exaggerated or fabricated.

schultzjc • 5 years ago

This is not the first article to point out the fallacy (or at least apocryphal nature) of the original contention about readership of academic journal articles. But Dr. Jago has done some excellent forensics and contributes an interesting observation about the degree to which citation and readership may or may not be related. That situation has change dramatically very recently. An "...online paper that has never been cited but has been viewed 1,500 times and downloaded 500 times" couldn't exist until online publication began, quite recently. We could never know how many paper copies were read previously. And of course neither "viewed" nor "downloaded" mean the paper was read. As the data about cited papers being unread suggest, there isn't much reading going on, even for cited papers.

I think academics continue to publish mainly for their tiny disciplinary clubs (and families), often ignoring a much larger audience that includes folks who paid for the published research. If the goal is large readership, writing for a general audience and publishing in nonacademic venues is the way to go.

Then again, I may be feeling morose because a report in the journal Nature this week pointed out that only 1% of papers published in the 80s (a peak for me) continue to be cited now. Sigh. At least I know my mom read my papers. (Or said she did.)

mkant69 • 5 years ago

This reminds me of the scene in the movie Real Genius, where Dr. Meredith tells Mitch "A bit of advice... Always... no, no... never... forget to check your references."
Too often people include a reference without ever having read it. When reviewing journal articles, I often encounter references that don't support the asserted claim. Sometimes the reference argues against the claim. Even when a reference supports the claim, it is usually just the first in a chain of references that merely mention the claim, as opposed to the primary source of the claim.

EconProf • 5 years ago

An example of Colbert's "truthiness" where a statement feels like it's true and, even if it's not (or there's no empirical evidences to support it), it ought be true. Such an extreme statement is just close enough to one's beliefs or limited, nonrandom experience to be credible and confirmatory.

Also, we should be disturbed about the complementary set of contributions to research that is virtually unpublishable due to the blind review process and editor's judgment. Of course, thousands of submissions should be rejected for sloppy methodology, irrelevance, etc., but many others cannot be accepted as long as the authors of the primary cited papers are alive to reject any paper that may diminish their academic stature. Research areas are so narrow that it's often easy to predict who top journal editors will send your paper off to review.

Worse yet, in a publish or perish world, profs self-censor for fear that powerhouse reviewers defend their self-serving status quo against critical re-assessment. Instead, tenure-track profs must be risk averse by fawning over the leading researchers by writing, "The pathbreaking work on this vital subject (Elderfuss, 1992, 1994a and b, 1997a, b, c) changed the universe as we know it today." The result is that research can't progress, delayed by an establishment as reactionary a censorship, in its own way, as Galileo confronted. That's why even Nobel winners like Paul Krugman have been forced to abandon journals submissions in favor of working papers networks and conferences that allow work to see the light of day without the corrupt mediating filters. Otherwise, a tree falls in the forest and doesn't ever make a sound as long as academic heresy is defined as challenging the powers that be.

Tom Aaron • 5 years ago

A fabrication.

However, in my field not far from reality. Perhaps 5 researchers in the world understand the material. All would be consulted (in the loop) and a couple of those would be doing the peer review for our Geological Survey journal. Sadly...more or less at the end of the 125 year legacy...no new blood to pick up the torch.

Until someone 'reinvented the wheel' to understand our field of study...never to be read.

andrewp111 • 5 years ago

Most journals these days are all-electronic, so if a paper is never downloaded, you can presume that it is never read.

Don Hubin • 5 years ago

"Not being read is a sufficient condition for not being cited." Would that it were so! Alas, in some disciplines it is not. In my own discipline, philosophy, I think it is very rare for a paper to be cited without being not only read by the author but being, in some way, influential on the author's thinking. However, this is not true in all disciplines.

When my son, then a law student at the University of Chicago, was assigned a paper written by a very distinguished legal scholar that had a citation to one of my own papers, he was understandably excited. I pointed out to him that, given the practice of writing for law reviews, the fact that the author cited my work did not provide any strong evidence that the author had read a single word of my paper. It's possible that a research assistant did, of course. But it's also possible that the research assistant merely noted from the title and abstract that my paper was relevant to the specific topic discussed by the author in that paragraph and threw in the citation without having read my article.

Charitably, one could propose that the practice of citing lots of unread articles is engaged in to assist readers who want to pursue a topic in greater depth. But, cynically, I suspect it is primarily to provide the patina of deep scholarship where there is no substance to that appearance.

Ole Bjørn Rekdal • 5 years ago

The proper term for citing (directly) unread sources is citation plagiarism, a basic mechanism behind the creation of academic urban legends - sometimes with disastrous consequences: http://www.slate.com/articl...

Jane Robbins • 5 years ago

With e-journals and, increasingly, e-access to print (and the trend toward eliminating print versions), it should be increasingly easier to affirmatively determine which articles are read online or at least downloaded (if not read), and for which only an abstract is read, through software and web-scraping that tracks clicks of article links, scrolling, time on page, downloads, etc. I'm afraid I suspect that greater, not less, than 50% are read, whether cited or not.

Andy Brower • 5 years ago

It seems to me that there is no way to measure how many times any academic publication or other document has been read by anyone. Proxies might be downloads, or citations, or book sales, or some other altmetric. But as noted by Don Hubin, even a citation does not necessarily mean that someone has read the paper. I think that is especially true for many highly-cited papers, where people have read about them in a secondary source and do not feel obliged to read the actual document. This all begs the question of what one means by "read", as well: how many people read the supplementary material (even reviewers and editors!) of articles in Science and Nature that might be orders of magnitude more voluminous than the article itself?

By the way, for what it is worth, 11 of 77 of my publications that appear in Web of Science are reported as having zero citations- about 15%, but four of those are from 2018.

The Journal Cladistics has published 978 articles (omitting meeting abstracts and corrections), and 938 of those have been cited at least once (4% with zero citations). Again, several in the latter category are 2018 publications, so perhaps will eventually get cited as well.

It reminds me of the assertion that 43% of law review articles are never cited, based on research from This study available on SSRN.

sand6432 • 5 years ago

Lindsay Waters, editor at Harvard University Press, famously made a similar claim about articles in the field of literary criticism, which led him to call certain journals "publish only" journals compared with journals that actually contain articles that are read. As for the perpetuation of errors, there has been a study that shows that many scholars do not go to the original source to check whether a quotation is accurate but instead rely on the author of the source they are using to have gotten it right. ---Sandy Thatcher

gasgiant • 5 years ago

I certainly think that until, say, 2000 one could have published articles that languished in near total obscurity. Particularly in fields with little "cross-pollination," so to speak, one could publish and be fairly sure that the work might not be cited. Recently, accidentally I came across a 1975 Norwegian journal of fungus research (I kid you not). Sure, some of the articles might have been cited elsewhere in the field, but others surely would not have been. And it isn't like other fields would be likely to cite them, either. That paper-only journal would have lain on the relevant library shelf gathering...erm... mold. Nowadays, to be utterly obscure is harder. The internet has essentially created a world of aficionadoes. Any obscure album, artist, technology or field of study can be enthused about by people who are now in connection with one another. To be utterly unread is now much more unlikely than before.

fiscalwiz • 5 years ago

I edited a major field journal in public administration for around a dozen years, the latter part of those years being in the easily-downloadable era. I was disheartened by the few times that articles were downloaded, including articles that I was sure had both practical significance and relevance for researchers. I wondered if anyone was paying attention to any of this stuff. Then I published a paper in a different journal and it was downloaded 27,000 times within 2 years of publication, setting a record for that journal. But that article was intensely practical and relevant to the practice of public administration. It wasn't gibberish that applied sophisticated statistical analysis to a narrow theoretical topic of interest to a small number of people. In sum, I do suspect that many articles are downloaded / read by almost nobody -- but articles will be read if their abstracts suggest some practical significance of the findings.