This Article Has Been Cited 400 Times—but It Doesn’t Exist
A professor spotted a fake article in a citation example—and realized almost 400 journals and conference papers used it as a reference. But why?
sergign/ShutterstockYou’ve always been told not to believe everything you hear, but turns out that tip might even apply to academic papers. One article has been cited in almost 400 scientific papers and academic studies. Must be a solid piece of research, right? Too bad it’s never been written.
Pieter Kroonenberg, emeritus professor in statistics for Leiden University in the Netherlands, was looking at publisher Elsevier’s author guidelines before submitting an article when this example citation caught his eye:
Van der Geer, J., Hanraads, J.A.J., Lupton, R.A., 2000. The art of writing a scientific article. J Sci. Commun. 163 (2) 51-59. [The journal name can also be found with its full title Journal of Science Communications]
What a small world—one of his former colleagues was the leading author, explains Anne-Wil Harzing, professor of international management at Middlesex University in London, in a Harzing.com blog post. That might not sound so crazy, but upon taking a closer look, Kroonenberg noticed something seemed off. He knew a John van de Geer, but not a Van der Geer. Plus, why would a psychologist who focused on statistics publish an article about “the art of writing?”
The questions had piqued Kroonenberg’s curiosity, so he decided to look it up. From there, the whole thing started to unravel. As hard as he dug, the statistics professor couldn’t find the Journal of Science Communications. The closest he could find was the Journal of Science Communication. But even if the extra S was a typo, that journal had only been around for 15 years, and volume 163 would suggest a 163-year-old publication. (Not that a messed-up letter is all that uncommon—did you know there’s a typo in the Lincoln Memorial?)
As another strategy for tracking down the article, Kroonenberg tried looking up the second author, too. But it seemed that the only article J.A.J. Hanraads had ever published was, ironically, “The Art of Writing a Scientific Article.” Probably not the biggest expert in the field of scientific writing.
Suddenly, the truth seemed clear: The article didn’t exist. Elsevier had just filled in the blanks with a made-up article to show the right formatting—kind of like writing “John Doe” on an example form.
He could have just left it at that, but he’d noticed something in his hunting: The article had been referenced a whopping 398 times in articles indexed on the esteemed the Web of Science citation searcher. Do a quick Google Scholar search, and you’ll get 703 results for papers citing that fake article.
Harzing wanted to look into who was claiming to cite this made-up paper, and found out almost 90 percent of the ones on Web of Science were conference proceedings papers, about two-thirds of which from Elsevier’s Procedia collection. Most of them were not “of the level that would normally be expected at conferences in this field,” Harzing writes. It seemed the authors might have been non-native English speakers who weren’t familiar with the language and formatting. The journal articles citing the fake paper ranged in topics from molecular structure to purification technology; there didn’t seem to be any common theme.
But her hunt did lead Harzing to notice something weird about the citations: Most were either the first or last item on a list. When she found an Elsevier conference submission template, she finally put the pieces together. The Van der Geer paper was the first citation on the template, so authors likely copied and pasted above or below, then forgot to delete it. (But they probably didn’t have the same consequences as these 9 most expensive typos in the world.)
While a totally fake article appearing in hundreds of Procedia citations seems sloppy, the collection has published almost 85,000 conference papers, leaving the mistake in just 0.5 percent, says Harzing. “Whilst unfortunate, one might consider this to be an acceptable ‘margin of error,’” she writes.
Still, be careful before taking anything at face value. “Do some due diligence,” writes Harzing. “If something looks fishy, it probably IS fishy!”