Thursday, October 22, 2009

Science journals: asking for concision-good, restricting # of refs-bad

Once again, I am being driven crazy by some aspect of scientific publishing. And today it is arbitrary (or silly) restrictions some journals place in the number of references allowed. I have been dealing with this because I have a paper in Press in one such journal (alas not an open access journal, and not my first choice of journals, but the paper will be published under a CC license ...more on this in another post )

Anyway, on top of my own issues, I was reminded of the perils of length/reference restrictions by an email from Jean-Michel Claverie from CNRS. In the email he told me of a situation involving a recent paper in a high profile journal with a name that begins with the letter N. This paper did not cite some highly relevant earlier work of Claverie's in PLoS One and when he wrote to the author to politely point this out, he was told that the reference was basically removed for space reasons. I have seen this happen many times with a variety of journals and the explanation for some lack of reference to relevant work is always something like "oh yes, of course we knew about that, but had to leave it out for space reasons" or "well, you know, they only allow 30 citations, so we had to leave some things out".

Sure, in the past, when printing articles and keeping track of references was difficult, this may have made sense. But a HUGE part of science is giving and getting credit for work. And thus it baffles me why some journals enforce strict restrictions on the number of references allowed. Basically what this says is - it does not matter what type of work you did - it could only possibly have been built up the work of (insert # here) previous studies. This is just wrong in so many ways. One option to solve this would be for these journals to allow expanded reference lists in online material - and for these lists to somehow get picked up by citation indexing systems. But this is something they need to solve. And until then, people should be aware that by publishing in such journals you may indirectly be doing a disservice to the people whose work contributed to your own.


  1. Two things I never understood, but have encountered is 1) journals restricting the number of references and 2) co-authors wanting to limit the number of authors (I'm not talking about the legitimate question of whether someone really contributed or is only listed for political reasons; I mean literally a concern that there are "too many authors" and that the goal should be to get it down to 20 or 10 or whatever).

    In both these cases, people seem to think that referencing a paper or including an author is a courtesy, as opposed to an obligation.

  2. great point about author list - i have encountered this too -- we should recognize ALL contributions to work, through references, author list and acknowledgements --- none of these should be artificially limited

  3. And thus it baffles me why some journals enforce strict restrictions on the number of references allowed.

    Absolutely. I'm also not a fan of replacing major sequence contributions with only GenBank accession numbers. For small viral genomes or organellar genomes, this is becoming quite common. Again, with no reference limits, you would reference all of these papers as well.

  4. Let me argue the contrary point: I have seen too many papers where the authors insist on backing up every second sentence with as many reviews as they can cram in from a rushed online search, or to widely cite anyone they think might be a thin-skinned reviewer. This over-citation reduces the value of citations, and results in highly skewed citations for 'standard' reference papers.

    Since journals like Nature are highly constrained in page length, a restriction to the number of printed references seems legitimate, if references are competing with the actual research. I agree that creating an online version with the full reference set is desirable, but impracticable for most people. Can I suggest that everyone publish in PloS :-)

  5. Peter

    Everything one does comes with negatives. But the risk that some people will over-cite things should not come at the cost of preventing well intentioned people from accurately reflecting on whose "shoulders" they stand on.

  6. Very nice write up. Easy to understand and straight to the point.


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