Human Exceptionalism

Abuse of Scientific Citations Lambasted in British Medical Journal

Long time readers of SHS know that I am concerned about the the publication of supposedly objective scientific papers that are actually advocacy pieces intended to promote ideological or political agendas. This corrupts science, in my view, because it takes it out of the realm of searching for truth and communicating findings.

Now a reader sent along an important article published in the BMJ.  Written by Harvard medical professor Steven A Greenberg, “How citation distortions create unfounded authority,” exposes one of the methods by which junk science is promoted and the sector politicized.  From the article (BMJ 2009;339:2680-no link):

Citation is both an impartial scholarly method and a powerful form of social communication. Through distortions in its social use that include bias, amplification, and invention, citation can be used to generate information cascades resulting in unfounded authority of claims.

Abusing citations is a very big deal. Properly done, citations connect “statements to the broader medical literature” and promote the conveyance of knowledge.  (Otherwise, you would have to reinvent the wheel each time.)  But when abused, citations distort and falsify.  Indeed, the paper notes that citation abuses are sometimes a tool of obtaining grant money, thereby multiplying the effect.  Here are the types of abuses noted by the author:


Self serving citation is always a distortion.

Persuasive citation may be necessary to communicate new, sound claims to the scientific community; it may, however, have distorted uses–citation bias, amplification, and invention.

Self serving citation is always a distortion; Persuasive citation may be necessary to communicate new, sound claims to the scientific community; it may, however, have distorted uses—citation bias, amplification, and invention.


Systematic ignoring of papers that contain content conflicting with a claim; Bolster claim; justifying animal models to provide opportunities to amplify claim.


Expansion of a belief system without data;

Citation made to papers that don’t contain primary data, increasing the number of citations supporting the claim without presenting data addressing it.


Citation diversion—citing content but claiming it has a different meaning, thereby diverting its implications.

Citation transmutation—the conversion of hypothesis into fact through the act of citation alone.

Back door invention—repeated misrepresentation of abstracts as peer reviewed papers to fool readers into believing that claims are based on peer reviewed published methods and data.

Dead end citation—support of a claim with citation to papers that do not contain content addressing the claim

Title invention—reporting of “experimental results” in a paper’s title, even though the paper does not report the performance or results of any such experiments

This is arcane stuff, but it is also important. For science to be science, its practitioners need to tell the objective truth to the best of their ability, and to not skew their findings either to gain grant support or to promote a particular belief system.  Alas, too often scientific papers aren’t really science. Cracking down on citation abuse is a good way for the science community to begin the urgent job of cleaning up the stable.

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