The Citation Trap

by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 06/2017

Yes, yes – I think I already confessed here once or twice – we owls are rather vain birds. Not in the same sense as those utterly feather-brained peacocks but rather in… well, another … let’s say… intellectual sense. You know what I mean? Excellent! So you can probably imagine just how much it actually massages our egos when you humans permanently refer to us owls as birds of wisdom...

Be that as it may. What counts more right here and now, however, is my confession to another and somewhat less pleasant truth in this context, namely that such pronounced intellectual vanity, invariably, does not lead you to positive outcomes. In my former life as a researcher, for example, it was this trait in particular that caused me to fall directly into that foolish “citation trap”. Well, almost everybirdy made that mistake at the time – anyway, that’s confession number three off my chest.

I do, indeed, recall one particular incident that quite notably illustrates how far my own vanity had actually driven me off the rails back then...

One fine night, I was sitting on my favourite “thinking branch” searching for a catchy title for the newest paper from our lab. After a while, I had a brilliant idea for what I found was a really humorous heading. To understand the pun, you first have to know that at that time one particular song was so extremely popular it was constantly being chirped by almost every younger songbird beak in my forest. The song was written by a young red bullfinch, who performed under the artist name Ed Cheepan, and the title was “What lovers do in bad times”. Since our manuscript actually described biochemical stress reactions of the liver, I almost fell off my branch in hootsterics as the title line “What livers do in bad times” popped into my head … (Hrrm, okay… at least I found it funny…)

As soon as I had regained my composure, however, doubts began edging their way up my neck feathers. An article, I had recently read in an informative science journal sprang to mind; it was about the effects of humorous headings in the context of scientific articles. As you might guess, the overall conclusion was not exactly positive: “Humorous writing is obviously disadvantageous with regard to subsequent citation rates. In particular, articles with supposedly funny titles are, in comparison, significantly less quoted, on average.”

“Too bad,” I lamented to myself. “This will certainly further the reason to continue the silly bashing of us scientists as humourless nerds.” But should I really risk losing dozens of potential citations this way? “Are you crazy?” the vanity centre in my brain immediately squawked. “Are you really willing to fall behind colleagues like silly Snipe or goony Goose in terms of citation counts?”

In the end, we published the paper with the title “Biochemical changes in the liver as a consequence of metabolic stress”. Boring, isn’t it? But wait, the story isn’t over yet…

Way later, I read a fresh paper from a group of vultures that added a nice little detail about a specific liver enzyme to the results already described in our article (Anyone else wondering why vultures, of all birds, engage in liver research?). When I checked their reference list, however, my carotids instantly swelled as thick as sunflower stems: those crooked-necked, rotten meat-eating aficionados hadn’t cited our paper, at all!

Sure as eggs, I confronted the vulture boss with my anger. And to my utmost surprise, he countered that he had completely missed our paper because its vague title did by no means suggest that the content might be of any relevance to their enzyme paper.

My beak clapped open. Aghast, I envisaged dozens more citations that I had possibly not received for the same reason and once again my brain’s vanity centre let out an agonising screech.

Nevertheless, I tried to learn my lesson. I vowed to include all the important aspects of a paper as precisely as possible in future headlines, which, of course, led to the phrasing of true monster titles, such as: Inhibitory effects of oxytocin and oxytocin receptor antagonist atosiban on the activities of carbonic anhydrase and acetylcholinesterase enzymes in the liver tissue of mice. Whether I could have eventually increased my citation counts this way? I don’t know. There was no way to confirm this by, for example, comparison with alternative titles.

This strategy, however, created another obstacle: not every editor was exactly amused by such “monster titles”. For instance…

We wanted to call a certain Perspective article “The liver does not only produce nutrients and energy but also maintains fluid and electrolyte balance and creates immune substances”. The editor, however, insisted on “Alternative Functions of the Liver”. And just as I had feared, already the first paper citing the article did actually miscite it: “Aside from its main task in nutrient metabolism the liver also produces a couple of hormones (Owlet, Owlet & Owl; 2002)”. Another example of how many authors apparently do not read much further beyond the title, when compiling the reference lists for their own papers.

Hence, I experienced both instances within a short time: not to be cited where I deserved it, as well as to be cited undeservedly in the wrong context. And that was the moment when I realised what a weak surrogate measure citations actually are for research quality. I sat on my branch, shaking with laughter about how I could ever have been so stupid as to fall into the trap of this whole crazy citation lark. How could I ever have become so foolishly misguided and aim exclusively for the highest possible number of citations when composing a paper – instead of just delivering its content in the clearest and most convincing way?

Oddly, my brain’s vanity centre remained dead silent at this question…


Last Changed: 28.11.2017