I am curious as to whether there are any accepted standard rules on when to cite, or not to cite, an erratum along with a paper. In my field (physics), I often see an erratum get between zero and a handful of citations, while the main paper keeps amassing them after publication of the erratum.

Clearly then, (at least in physics) there is no expectation that an author should always cite the corrections. This is reasonable to me: If I cite a paper in my introduction about a related interesting system, the fact that the paper has a typo in eq. (33) isn't very relevant, so no need to have it clutter up the bibliography. On the other hand, it seems obvious to cite the erratum if my paper directly depends on the contents of the erratum. Presumably there's a line somewhere in-between. However, I have never seen this formalized. What if my work builds on a paper, but is not affected by the published corrections?

So my question is essentially:

  • Under what conditions should the erratum be cited? Are there any relevant guidelines, or rules of thumb?

(I also welcome any discussion on how the standards might vary between fields, or between different types of publications.)

  • 1
    Related. As an example, this paper's info states A correction has been published and gives a reference to the erratum. When one goes to ADS, the fact that there was an erratum is highlighted in red. So I'd say that there is no need to cite an erratum as it should be tightly connected to the paper itself. But if you explicitly use/cite results from the erratum that are absent in the main paper, citing the erratum is all ok. – corey979 Apr 5 '18 at 22:11
  • As pointed out by @corey979 much of the work is now done for recent, online papers. The older errata are harder to deal with, since it is not nearly as clear that there was an erratum (although an author search in your favorite database should yield a hit). – Jon Custer Apr 5 '18 at 22:15
  • I agree that the journals being online does help quite a bit, at least the for the first exposure to a paper. Had I been around before then I would probably have made an effort to always cite corrections, just as a service to the reader. – Anyon Apr 5 '18 at 23:06

Errata are used for substantial errors in a paper, rather than mere spelling or grammatical errors. Citation of errata with original papers helps reduce error propagation in research. Unfortunately this is not as common a practice as it should be, mostly because authors are often unaware of an erratum, or believe that if they are aware of it, others will be too. The problem of error propagation due to failure to cite errata has been studied in the context of physics research by Thomsen and Resnik (1995). They find that the existence of an erratum does not decrease the citation frequency for the original paper, and the erratum is usually not cited with the original paper, allowing errors in research to propagate.

It is possible that this situation will improve now that most journals are online, owing to better online referencing of papers and direct connection of papers to their erratum. When you look at a paper from its original source in an online scholarly journal, it is usually obvious when there has been an erratum. However, it is still common for researchers to obtain papers from other sources where they are not alerted to this, and so this is not a panacea. (For example, some authors print out papers and then read from printed copies. If there is a later erratum, the researcher with a printed copy may have no idea that this has occurred.)

Though I am not aware of any formal "standard rules" on the matter, it is desirable to reduce error propagation in research, and so ideally it is best to always include citation of the erratum with the citation of the original paper. That way the reader is alerted to the existence of the erratum, and does not propagate any error in the paper. At a minimum the erratum should obviously be cited whenever the main citation to the paper touches on an aspect of the paper that is actually affected by that erratum (i.e., you should avoid error propagation yourself). But even in cases where the erratum does not affect parts of the paper that were of relevance to the main citation, it is also useful to cite the erratum in case an interested reader decides to read the cited paper in full, and is not aware that there has been an erratum. Evidently, from the fact that errata receive few citations, not many academics are doing this.

Speaking as someone who has published a mathematical paper with an error in an equation, and an erratum to correct that error, I would prefer it if all citations to my paper also cite the erratum with it, just to make sure that the original error does not propagate. It is not offensive to an author who has made an error to have the erratum to their paper cited; we are already aware we fucked up, and it is a relief when others do the right thing to minimise the damage.

Thomsen, M. and Resnik, D. (1995) The effectiveness of the erratum in avoiding error propagation in physics. Science and Engineering Ethics 1(3), pp. 231-240.

  • 2
    Really interesting reference, thank you! Your position of "always cite" is reasonable, but it's clearly not universally held, as (according to both the reference and my own experience) authors quite often leave out citations to their own errata. I wonder if there is somewhat of a field difference here, reflecting the different standards of rigor. – Anyon Apr 6 '18 at 20:23
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    A typo in an equation could lead to an erratum if it could lead to the paper likely being misinterpreted. "substantial errors" lie on a continuum. It could be that most of the analysis is wrong and needed correcting or could be something more minor like "Fig 2 was generated using the parameters x=2 and y=3 as reported in the figure caption, rather than x=5 and y=7, as reported in the main text, the figure would look as follows if x=5 and y=7, which is qualitatively similar but note the difference in qualities A B and C." Such sort of errors are borderline as to whether the correction is needed – WetlabStudent Apr 6 '18 at 23:48

The big question is why the erratum was issued. If the error is a significant technical issue, then the erratum should certainly be cited along with the original article.

However, I can provide a counterexample where it is probably unnecessary to cite the erratum—-if the publisher failed to make a correction specified in the proof stage, and then published an erratum or corrigendum. This happened on my most cited paper—a grammatical error was left uncorrected, even though we notified them of it. The publisher fixed the error, and issued an erratum. Given that this all happened within a few weeks of the initial publication, citing the erratum is just a waste of time for everybody involved.

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