Friday, October 10, 2008

VERIFY: News That Stays News

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Originally uploaded by brtpropshop

On October 7, 1916 a librarian named Frank Place, Jr. published an article in the New York Medical Journal that is just as relevant today as it was 92 years ago.

The title was " Verify Your References: A Word to Medical Writers." Place was not the first (nor heaven knows the last) to complain about bad, incomplete, misleading, or downright fraudulent references (alias footnotes, endnotes, or citations) in scholarly papers. But few have done it so eloquently.

Place laments that: "Articles that mean nothing are ascribed to mythical authors; journals are quoted that never will be published, and dates are indicated that none of us will ever live to see."

And as one who has spent some time tracing the evolution of an error from one article's citation to the next, I heartily agree when he says that some authors: "so far forget science as to quote articles that it is plain they have never seen, but have lifted bodily from some other list. Certainly there should be some distinction between the article read and one known only by hearsay."

Place argues that verifying your footnotes "is of the spirit of the scientific method. Substantiate your statement by proof, either of your own or by the work that others have done before you. We work with the tools that others have made and placed in our hands, and we hope to make tools to place in the hands of others who follow us. If our predecessors have experimented and have left no record in material objects or written description, their works profit us nothing."

According to the Web of Science, Place's article has been cited in 11 articles since 1990. He would no doubt be depressed but not surprised to learn that one of those citations gets the volume wrong, while another (an article specifically about citation accuracy) screws up the page numbers. The more things change the more the meme chooses.

Here are a few more thoughts from my new favorite medical librarian:

"Give authorities [ references ] as they are printed, not as you would like to have them printed."

"Should not the scientist be as truthful and as accurate in recording his help as in giving his own work?"

"Verify the reference that your best friend gives you. Verify the reference that your revered chief gives you. Verify, most of all, the reference that you yourself found and jotted down. To err is human, to verify is necessary."

Place, Frank Jr. "Verify Your References: A Word To Medical Writers." New York Medical Journal. 104 : 697-699. October 7, 1916.

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