Earlier this week, Jordan Anaya asked an interesting question on Twitter:
Why do we blame the media for reporting on bad studies but we don’t blame scientists for citing bad studies?
— Omnes Res (@OmnesResNetwork) March 6, 2017
This got me thinking about what we might call the ethics of citation.
Citation is a little-discussed subject in science. Certainly, there’s plenty of talk about citations – about whether it is right to judge papers by the number of citations they receive, whether journals should be ranked by their impact factor (average number of citations per paper), and so on. But citation, the actual process of choosing which papers to cite when writing papers, has largely escaped scrutiny.
I think citation is an ethically meaningful process. Like it or not, citations are the currency of success in science. By citing a paper, we are not simply giving a helpful reference for the readers of the paper. We are giving the cited paper an accolade, and we are tangibly rewarding the authors for publishing it. To not cite a certain paper is, likewise, an act with consequences.
So if we care about fairness and the just distribution of resources, we as publishing scientists should take citation seriously.
What are the specific ethical problems of citation? Here are three that I think matter: