Monday, December 16, 2013

Should you judge a paper by the quality of its referencing?

Someone can write a brilliant paper and yet poorly reference previous work.
On the other hand, one can write a mediocre or wrong paper and reference previous work in a meticulous manner.

But, I have to confess I find I sometimes do judge a paper by the quality of the referencing.
I find there is often a correlation between the quality of the referencing and the quality of the science. Perhaps this correlation should not be surprising since both reflect on how meticulous is the scholarship of the authors.

If I am sent a paper to referee I often find the following happens. I desperately search the abstract and the figures to find something new and interesting. If I don't I find that sub-consciously I start to scan the references. This sometimes tells me a lot.
Here are some of the warning signs I have noticed over the years.

Lack of chronological diversity.
Most fields have progressed over many decades.
Yet some papers will only reference papers from the last few years or may ignore work from the last few years. Some physicists seem to think that work on quantum coherence in photosynthesis began in 2007. I once reviewed a paper were the majority of the references were more than 40 years old. Perhaps for some papers that might be appropriate but it certainly wasn't for that one.

Crap markers. I learnt this phrase from the late Sean Barrett. It refers to using dubious papers to justify more dubious work.
For me an example would be "Engel et al. have shown that quantum entanglement is crucial to the efficiency of photosynthetic systems [Nature 2007]."

Lack of geographic and ethnic diversity. This sounds politically incorrect! But that is not the issue. Most interesting fields attract good work from around the world. Yet I have reviewed papers were more than half the references were from the same country as the authors. Perhaps that might be appropriate for some work but it certainly wasn't for that one. It ignored relevant and significant work from other countries.

Gratuitous self-citation.

Missing key papers or not including references with different points of view.

Citing papers with contradictory conclusions without acknowledging the inconsistency.
I once reviewed a paper with a title like "Spin order in compound Y", yet it cited in support a paper with a title like  "Absence of spin order in compound Y."!

When I started composing this post I felt guilty and superficial about confessing my approach. The quality of the referencing does not determine the quality of the paper.
So why do I keep doing this?
Shouldn't I just focus on the science.
The painful reality is that I have limited time that I need to budget efficiently.
I want to spend as much time reviewing a paper that is in proportion to its quality.
Often the references gives me a quick and rough estimate of the quality of the paper.
The best ones I will work hard on, try and to engage with carefully and find robust reasons for endorsement and constructive suggestions for improvement.
At the other end of the spectrum, I just need to find some quick and concrete reasons for rejection.
But, I should stress I am not using the quality of referencing as a stand alone criteria for accepting or rejecting a paper. I am just using this as a quick guide as to how seriously I should consider the paper. Furthermore, this is only after I have failed to find something obviously new and important in the figures.

Am I too superficial?
Does anyone else follow a similar approach?
Other comments welcome.


  1. My answer to your question is "Yes". Part of a paper's scholarly value is in having useful and appropriate references, as you point out. It is absolutely not superficial to demand this as a referee.

    I also think it is important and challenging to try to teach this skill to students. If you only identify a dozen or so references relevant to your draft manuscript then you haven't done your homework, in most cases.

  2. I don't see myself using more than half a dozen references. It's impossible for me to absorb too much information at once.