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Nearly 1 in 4 history journal citations are inaccurate: study

‘Due to research difficulties posed by some citation conventions in history journals, this number likely underestimates the actual prevalence of errors’

Approximately 25 percent of citations in leading history journals were found to be inaccurate in a recent study published by a trio of academic researchers.

The researchers analyzed five of the top history journals and found that 24.27 percent of citations “do not substantiate the propositions for which they are cited.”

Study authors included Aaron Cumberledge, a visiting professor at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, his peer Benjamin Riley and Neal Smith. Cumberledge responded to College Fix inquiries about the paper.

The Fix reviewed a copy of the paper published in Scientometrics.

The study stated that the error rate found is likely lower than the actual percentage of citation errors, concluding “[d]ue to research difficulties posed by some citation conventions in history journals, this number likely underestimates the actual prevalence of errors.”

Cumberledge told The Fix that the paper serves as a “scientific analysis and quantification of the problem,” and that “determining the source of the problem is a highly speculative enterprise” that “may be due to improper understandings of citation practices (which can be vague)” or “deliberate malpractice.”

Cumberledge cautioned that although he does not have data to quantify the root cause of bad citation practices, he believes that “the main cause seems to be simple negligence.”

“For example, authors will sometimes quote the wrong number from a table or conflate two different points in their reference,” he told The Fix. “They also sometimes appear to be copying erroneous information from a secondary source and copying the citation to the primary reference without having read the reference themselves.”

Cumberledge concluded to The Fix, “in short, if authors made a greater effort to be diligent in reading their references and accurately reporting their information, I think most quotation errors would be corrected.”

For specific solutions, Cumberledge and his colleagues suggested in the paper that increasing editorial reviewing and verification of references would help diminish the problem, but this is “an unrealistic solution that places a major burden on editorial staff.”

The study suggested citing with specific page numbers for each proposition stated to allow for easier review by editors.

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Despite the challenges faced in solving the quotation accuracy problem in history journals, the study maintained that the rate of citation errors continues to be a pressing problem across academic disciplines, which can create a sense of distrust in research.

“[T]he problem of quotation errors exists at roughly the same frequency in history journals as in journals for other academic disciplines,” the researchers stated. “[R]eaders should not be made to doubt the veracity of references, knowing one in four is likely incorrect.”

The research echoes concerns raised by Portland State University political scientist Bruce Gilley who published a series of essays on “junk citations” for Minding the Campus.

“The reason why junk citations are a problem is because scholars are not being encouraged to go and read the stuff they are citing, tell the reader what they are finding, how it’s done, and whether it’s even replicable,” Gilley previously told The Fix. “People think they can just throw out ‘the research is very clear on this, the evidence is so clear,’ but it is all built on junk citations.”

“Academics can’t complain that no one trusts them anymore when their own writing style sows the seeds of distrust,” Gilley said.

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About the Author
Oscar Buynevich -- Temple University