By Josh Lancette
In a letter to the editor published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, entomologists Dr. Lee Cohnstaedt of the USDA-ARS and Dr. Jesse Poland of Kansas State University point out a disturbing habit of authors citing review articles rather than original research articles. They also urge reviewers and editors to be vigilant on the issue.
“Review papers are necessary to summarize previously published data in a novel way or offer a new perspective,” write the authors. “However, they are being cited at a frequency that indicates they revolutionized the field. To this end, review papers are not advancing the frontier of science and should not be cited as such.”
The problem arises when authors cite review articles in their papers instead of the original research article the review is discussing or summarizing. This leads to review articles typically having higher citation rates, and therefore having higher rankings in citation indexes. So, review articles become more valuable to both journals and researchers, as they boost all iterations of citations metrics, from the journal level to the author level.
“If people acquire jobs based on citations or citation derivatives, like h-index, etc., then it is safer to write reviews than work in a lab where outcomes are uncertain and difficult to obtain (i.e., riskier),” said Cohnstaedt. “Writing review papers would be the surest way to a tenured position based on citations alone. Of course that is not correct, but the way review papers are being cited, it does not hurt to have one or two on the CV. This is not a common problem, but we need to be vigilant it does not become a trend.”
To solve this problem of review papers being cited instead of the original works they summarize, Cohnstaedt and Poland ask authors, editors, and reviewers to all play a role.
“If authors are not acting responsibly with citations, then manuscript reviewers must be aware of over-citation of reviews and request the original research be cited,” write the authors. “Editors have the responsibility of policing their journals to ensure the proper journal receives due credit.”
While they urge everyone involved in the writing and review of a manuscript to be careful to cite original works instead of review papers, they do make sure to note that they are not calling for an all-out ban on citing review papers, as reviews play a very important role.
“If a review paper succinctly summarizes an idea, the review can be cited, but it should be indicated as such,” write the authors. “Alternatively, if a new perspective not expressed in original research is presented and supported by the reviewed papers, than the review may be cited.”
The authors also clarify in their letter that this is not a new problem, but one the scientific community constantly needs to consider when writing and reviewing manuscripts.
Interestingly, Cohnstaedt wonders if proper citations would have discipline-changing effects.
“One great example of a group getting short changed for citations are taxonomists,” said Cohnstaedt. “Imagine the impact factor of taxonomy journals and authors if we properly cited the species we discuss in other entomology journals. Almost never in the references is the actual paper that describes the species cited, although we put that information the first time we mention a species. Just food for thought. We might have more taxonomists if they had citations for each time their organism description is discussed in a paper.”
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Josh Lancette is Manager of Publications at the Entomological Society of America.