An article has come to light that has been cited in nearly 400 academic studies and scientific papers. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t exist.
The “phantom reference” was first spotted by Pieter Kroonenberg, a Dutch emeritus professor in Statistics, who prompted his friend Professor Anne-Wil Harzing to dig deeper into the mystery.
As she explains in a blog post, he was looking at the Elsevier journal author style guide and found the following reference: “Van der Geer, J., Hanraads, J.A.J., Lupton, R.A., 2000. The art of writing a scientific article. Journal of Science Communications 163 (2) 51-59.”
The citation caught Kroonenberg’s attention because he actually knew another academic called John van de Geer, the study’s supposed author. However, he noticed a slightly different spelling of the name. On closer inspection, he also noticed that the journal was called “Journal of Science Communications” rather than its correct name “Journal of Science Communication”.
Something seemed off. After some sleuthing around, Harzing discovered the article appeared to be completely fictional despite appearing in almost 400 studies. However, as she later found out, this was not a matter of fraud or deception with intent. It is actually a bizarrely common mistake.
Harzing says that most of the citations of the phantom reference were in “fairly low-quality conference papers”, often by researchers who were from countries “where there isn’t a strong tradition of writing in English.” It also became apparent that the phantom reference was regularly cited as the first article in the reference list.
It turns out, the citation is a made-up example from the science publisher Elsevier to show authors how to cite their work. The “phantom reference” simply ended up in researchers' lists of citations by researchers mixing up the template with their own references, it seems.
Just 400 out of the 85,000 Procedia conference papers include the reference, meaning the mistake can only be found in 0.5 percent of the total papers, according to Harzing. She says this could mean the error is "unfortunate" yet could be considered to be within an "acceptable margin of error."
Nevertheless, it seems that the phantom reference is a symptom of wider problems within academic science publishing, such as low-quality control, careless editing, and – the real bugbear – predatory journals.
“Just like many other mysteries, our mystery of the phantom reference ultimately had a very simple explanation: sloppy writing and sloppy quality control,” Harzing concluded.
[H/T: Retraction Watch]