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I am trying to figure out how to cite what the general "word on the street" is regarding a certain topic within a scientific paper. As a researcher, I have noticed there are a number of popularly-held misconceptions regarding the object of my research held by colleagues in the same field (but different specialties) and the general lay public. Indeed, part of the goal of my research is to debunk these ideas. I need to figure out how to bring up this is what people have actually thought regarding the topic and therefore it is necessary to discuss. However, there are two problems...

  1. Many of the comments I have seen first-hand were made by the general lay public on social media. Citing random people's social media accounts to make a point in a scientific paper doesn't feel right and feels like punching down.
  2. Many of the comments on this by fellow colleagues are negative and could be interpreted as insulting if tied to a particular individual. Additionally, these comments are again almost all from pers. comms. or on social media. Again, this is an issue that people rarely study, so you have a lot of researchers in adjacent fields speculating on this subject casually but because they specialize in other subjects these comments never make it into print.

I need to cite these observations to show that these are actual things people have said, but I don't want to tie it to specific people because it might be seen as offensive. How should I do this? I would say (pers. obs. by author), but would it then come off as though I am the one claiming this rather than these are observations of what others have said? I'm hesitant to treat this as "general knowledge" because it may not be general knowledge in the next 20 years or so.

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    You're asking the wrong question. I think you need to consider how to collect data to show that what you think the general population thinks is actually what they think. Then you can make whatever statement you want and you don't run into the issue of trying to cite the grapevine. Cherry-picked, anecdotal evidence is like the antithesis of the scientific method, it doesn't make sense to reference it...
    – sErISaNo
    Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 18:12
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    You could state that the source is "Anonymous" which would not link the source statements directly to the individual who stated the original comment. You could also cite the platform the statement appeared on and use a randomly generated username to protect individual privacy.
    – wjktrs
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 2:28
  • I think I'm not clear enough on why you are concerned with the misconceptions of people who are (i) not academics or (ii) academics but not specialists in your research area. In my experience, the vast majority of academic papers are pitched at specialists in your research area. But academics often give general audience talks, write popular books, and so forth: these have very different goals. I wonder whether you are conflating these goals or whether what the general populace believes is actually relevant to your research. Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 4:30
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    @Pete L. Clark Possibly OP worries about his field having fair access to (1) funding and (2) talented graduates to sustain their research. Funding decision-makers are generalists depending on common opinion in the wider field rather than spending time studying it for themselves. Likewise professors teaching undergrads would have only superficial knowledge of this field, perhaps secondhand or now outmoded - their scepticism would influence their students. Without a "splash" discovery, OP & peers must work to remove unconscious biases against their field by others in the wider field.
    – Trunk
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 21:36
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    As an analogy, your paper provides a scientific answer as to why the sky looks blue. You think this is important because lay people have a very wrong idea as to why it looks blue and you are trying to somehow cite the wrong lay idea to motivate your paper?
    – quarague
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 9:33

7 Answers 7

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It doesn't sound like you merely need to cite this observation, it sounds like you don't actually know with any sort of certainty what the answer is. You have a hypothesis, but no data. You may need to actually do some research into this question if it's that important. I have colleagues who have done exactly this, using survey methods to provide some quantitative estimate of what "everyone thinks", rather than just what everyone thinks everyone thinks; you might be surprised at how valuable other people find these things, one of the studies I have in mind has been cited as much or more than the work it was intended to support.

If people believe the thing you think they believe enough to write it in their papers, etc, you can cite those like you would anything else. I would focus particularly on papers that are influential (citation count is probably a reasonable proxy), especially reviews in your field by people who you think you and others would see as leaders in your field, and give more than one example to not single anyone out. I don't think you should worry so much about offending these people, you don't need to call them idiots while doing so, you're just pointing out a belief that is expressed in the literature, and then offering your take on that belief, hopefully with evidence that is convincing to others. Every single useful academic paper is doing this to some degree.

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    In my case what the general public and researchers outside specialists on this topic think is clearly different from what the actual data says. "Common knowledge" on this subject is largely from the 1920s and is heavily influenced by biases of that era (teleological thinking). The problem is other researchers do not state these opinions in a citable format. They are mostly specialists on other groups of animals giving idle speculation on the group I work with, but they don't actually publish papers on them. Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 17:18
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    @user2352714 Doesn't really seem necessary to cite, then, why not just describe how things really are in your paper?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 17:34
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    Because the issue then becomes "Why is this even being brought up? Why is it relevant?" Whereas if it is mentioned that the commonly held belief is incorrect providing the relevant information necessary to correct it is a useful contribution to the literature. Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 2:29
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    @user2352714 you're asking how to cite anonymous samples as proof of a certain believe. But they are not proof of that believe, hence the answer is: you cannot. You need to get actual proof.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 9:09
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    Note that for a STEM specialist, learning how to undertake a valid and ethically-sound study of the form Bryan proposes may be a steep learning curve (and the word "quantitative" means something different to social scientists than to STEMies, and quantitative may not necessarily be best). Don't be afraid to bring a social-science specialist from your institution onto your team to help. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 19:02
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(1) How central is this for your paper? (2) Are you writing for a readership that actually holds these misconceptions, or for experts that do not hold them? (If you say "both", which group you think would be the majority?)

If this is not so central, and the main point of your paper will stand without giving strong evidence for the "word on the street", you may get away with just saying something like "I have come across this view often". If it is really so ubiquitous, reviewers (and readers who agree with you) might just nod and let it go through.

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I take it that these misconceptions on your field may be affecting those who are not au fait with more recent work in it but who nonetheless have influence on its development vis-à-vis research council funding (council board members and administrators) and the extent of its interest to potential young researchers (university lecturers in the general field).

If my assumption is wrong, then you have no reason to worry much about the views of the wider field and you just carry on working toward the regard of your field peers.

But if I am close to the mark, then somebody needs to provide a review paper on the evolution of the field since the 1920s and clearly show how the assumptions of that period have been superseded by more recent work and conceptualization resulting from it.

On your specific question of how to cite sources who show ignorance or dismissiveness you need to check out broad scope talks, papers and especially "encyclopaedia" type books on the general field but which touch - fleetingly and perhaps dismissively - your sub-field. If you can get a few of these then that should be adequate.

It's a bit naughty but if a big-name speaker is delivering a general talk on modern developments in general at some local institution you could have a naive undergraduate present a question that implicitly compares work in your sub-field with that being done in another more recognized sub-field. The speaker's offhand response should be illuminating. And quotable. Naturally it would only be desirable to do this to a speaker who has shown unfair disregard to your sub-field in the past.

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  • Pretty much this. I work in a subfield of a topic that is part of a much bigger "big picture" topic. These ideas are distorting the way we look at this small chunk of the larger story, and by extension how we see the big picture. Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 3:43
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A solution my co-authors and I used in a similar situation: when we wanted to attest examples of misstatements of the meaning of null-hypothesis tests in published papers (Table 1, Dushoff et al. *Methods in Ecology and Evolution 2019), we quoted relevant snippets of text from the articles but said only "citations available by request" so that we weren't calling individual authors out quite as explicitly. In our case, anyone who wanted to find the original sources could probably also find the original references by full-text search on Google Scholar ... that would be much harder for social media posts, I think.

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If you want to know what "word on the street" is for scientific publication, you design an instrument to assess it, design a study around the instrument, take the study to an RSRB to approve it, do the study, then publish it. Other/alternative methods would include rigorous literature review to try to capture it.

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Consider the possibility that you are being groomed by an echo chamber. Consult with your advisor to ensure the value of your research is not entirely predicated on popular misconception. Instead of diverting resources to half-baked sociological sampling, it may be better to focus resources toward demonstrating the utility of the research. If you feel that utility is a bad thing, then you may want to point your research in another direction.

For example, there are some open source programming languages built on academic research, such as Haskell, Agda, and Clean, if you want to have a look at communities where making tools/alternative perspectives directly available to the public is somewhat normalized.

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My understanding from your question is that you just need to show that a wrong belief is common, as a starting point for debunking that belief. Since you don't need to quantify exactly how prevalent that belief is, a survey may be overkilling because nowadays you can just run a query on social media or the web and report that a reproducible search yielded a largish number of instances of the wrong belief versus a same order number of instances or less of the right belief. Twitter (now X) may be an easy way because, as far as I know, there are available databases of tweets. Even automatically search the web (with an script checking results from a Google search) can show that there are a number of results for that wrong belief.

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  • I can actually find tweets of colleagues saying these ideas on Twitter and other places. The issue is if I do it comes off as taking potshots at a colleague for what they said on social media. Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 3:41
  • Right, but you don't have to cite the tweets individually - you can just make the point that the view is common without calling out any particular individuals.
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 17:53
  • My answer is not about finding a particular tweet with that wrong belief, but about finding hundreds or more of them. If there are just a few of them but they are relevant because of the author, you could just mention that those tweets exist and keep them just in case the reviewers ask for them.
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 12:04

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