Hey! Cite that Old Literature!

One of the strangest trends in scientific writing, and one that truly makes GG the Grumpy Geophysicist, is the shear inability of many authors to properly cite the existing literature.

Now in the old days you had to trundle down to the library and start going through annual indices, or following back citations in journal articles you knew about that were relevant.  You might have used Science Citation Index, which used to be shelves of bound (and for more recent years, paper bound) volumes to locate some other papers.  You could literally spend days in the library pawing through stuff to assemble a basic introduction to a paper, let alone seeing if there was anything specific to your study that you needed to know. And, amazingly, papers from that era by and large did a pretty good job of citing the existing literature.

Today, in contrast, you can sit in a coffeshop a thousand miles from a decent library and view and download papers to your heart’s content. Science Citation Index is online (if you or your institution have a subscription); in an hour you can troll up and down citation lists to see how some idea or place or analysis has originated and evolved through the literature. And yet a lot of recent manuscripts (and, sadly, published papers) come along citing the wrong papers, or citing recent review papers rather than the relevant original literature, or, amazingly, missing critical pieces of the literature.  Or, even more crucially, totally misrepresenting what some older papers said. How is this possible? Sometimes it feels as though Wikipedia pages on obscure geologic concepts are better researched than professional papers. The only defense, and it is a feeble one, is that the size of the literature has grown enormously.  Maybe so, but that really only excuses missing the more recent papers, which seems less of a problem.

So, please, read those papers to see what they really said.  And figure out where relevant observations and ideas originated. Sometimes you’ll be surprised to learn that the paper everybody cites doesn’t say what everybody wants it to say…and occasionally you’ll realize there is something misunderstood that you can now understand.

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