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Academic urban legends

An essay on the prevalance of rumors and urban legends in academic writing.

Categories Academic Articles
Author Ole Bjørn Rekdal
Source Source
Related to Reproducibility Science

In the past two decades it has become much easier to obtain the cited sources within minutes or seconds. It's now easy to read an academic paper along with the sources it references. This has made it easier to identify cases of scientific misconduct/sloppiness.

When referencing other papers, it is common to cite not-the-primary-source, but the paper you read the fact in. This use of secondary sources is sloppy and promotes a whisper game, making it more likely the true fact will be altered through inexact copying.

When reading academic papers I should verify the sources - though I didn't do it here! It's too difficult to verify each one, but I could follow a pattern akin to Epistemic Spot Checks

Copying the primary source reference without actually consulting the primary source is a bad habit, akin to plagiarizing the reference, because it can promote systematic misrepresentation of a source.

When reading the primary source you'll learn more information and context, and you might discover, as in this example of the urban legend of spinach, that the fact cited in the primary source is unsupported.

It's unclear if there is an avalanche of low quality papers! In yet another example of the way in which we can quickly pass on urban legends, the idea that most papers are not cited has not been proven out.