I found in a medical paper from the 1990's a non-citation like this:

The results and terminology by John Smith, Jane Poe, John Doe, Richard Roe, Larry Loe, Journal of Scientific Papers, 12345-698 (3), are unscientific [Brown, 1997; Lawrence 1985]

So, they want to unequivocally reference the paper by Smith et al; but as they consider it bad, they don't want to give them a citation. I have never seen that before. Also, I am not familiar with the field, so I can't say how bad that paper is.

Citations are considered as a measurement of the impact of a paper, and as such, a proxy for its quality. On the other hand, people cite papers even to criticise them (you did it all wrong, people!).

Is this non-citation ethical? How bad would the paper have to be to justify it?


As editor I would not accept this in a publication. If it is published it should be referenced. Yes, it bumps the references for the authors and yes, bad science may attract a fair amount of citations for all the right?/wrong? reasons. But, it is not up to the authors to decide how referencing should be made, journals have guidelines that should be followed. Having the citation properly referenced makes it easier for others to find the article and see it for themselves.

Furthermore, from another point of view the statement that something is "unscientific" is not appropriate either. It is an opinion. The cited paper can be unscientific but the academic way to show this is not to just say it but to prove it.

Your quote is a specific case, of which I know nothing, so the reply concerns the general case but I would react if I saw something like that in a paper I edit and I would ask the authors to stick to facts.

One last point is that if a paper is really bad, then it should be considered for retraction. That is how scientifically extremely poor, bordering on dangerous, papers are handled.

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  • It is good to have the testimony of an editor. Do you think your opinion would be the general rule, or other editors may feel different? – Davidmh Oct 16 '14 at 8:12
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    I would think most would go this way. There are a few qualifiers, though. I expect the "bad" paper is a "normal" publication in a "normal" journal that for some reason may have "slipped through" so that it is correctly considered published. I assume the journal publishing the "new" paper follows standards where sources should be referenced according to a referencing standard. The latter would preclude referencing of the sort you mention. So it seems a technical error from the side of the journal to a silly behaviour from the authors. – Peter Jansson Oct 16 '14 at 8:32

"Citations are considered as a measurement of the impact of a paper, and as such, a proxy for its quality."

Many people, including me, agree that these considerations are not appropriate; the second even more so than the first. However, using a practice as you describe, i.e. citing a paper but not adding it to the bibliography, could work in the direction that citation indeed stand a bit more for "impact" and "quality". However, since are so many more flaws with the impact factor and bibliometrics as a measure for anything else than the number of citations (such as self-citations, citations "forced" by reviewers, citations rings in the vanity press, citing without reading the paper…) I would say that it does not make sense to use a practice of citing without citing.

My brother proposed a "markup" for citations which goes in the same direction, i.e. something like

\cite[community feeling]{PopularPaperWithNoSpecificRelation}
\cite[please journal editor]{AnyPaperOfEditor}
\cite[enforced by a referee]{SuggestedPaper}
\cite[proof or evidence elsewhere]{TechnicalPaper}

but I guess that this proposal has to be taken with a grain of salt…

In another direction: Citations say on what work you build your own. If there is a paper which you find horrible and which you do not build upon, is there a need to cite it? If you simply want to bash some others work, use a blog post, or probably even don't do it at all. However, if you think that the respective paper is bad but used by others nonetheless and want to emphasize in what way it is flawed than you have to cite it properly as your contribution really builds upon that paper.

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  • Regarding the "other direction": Many journals accept critique from readers, if a paper published there has serious concerns regarding the content. – posdef Oct 15 '14 at 9:42
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    If there is a paper which you find horrible and which you do not build upon, is there a need to cite it?YES! – JeffE Oct 15 '14 at 11:34
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    @JeffE Your lists of citations are presumably very long… – Dirk Oct 15 '14 at 11:35
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    @Dirk You have no idea. – JeffE Oct 15 '14 at 11:39
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    "Citations say on what work you build your own." - I disagree. Citations say where you place your work. A thorough discussion of related work should not restrict itself to explaining what existing works you used, but also to explaining where you diverged from existing works. i.e., you explicitly cite things that you did not use. – O. R. Mapper Oct 15 '14 at 16:21

It's most certainly bad form. Let's say you read a paper that you believe is wrong, and you want to write a paper saying how wrong it is.

If you cite the paper, yes, the wrong paper will get the citation, but when people who know how to use the literature (less and less every year -- sigh) look up the original paper, they have a fair chance that bibliographical tools will point them to the new paper. This should help correct the literature, and prevent the wrong paper from being cited for years to come. The citations will eventually die down for the wrong paper.

In contrast, if you don't cite it, it will be harder for the community to learn that its wrong-- thus YOU ARE HURTING YOUR FIELD by not using every tool at your disposal to correct the literature!!

As to ethics, it's certainly not plagiaristic with the full citation appearing in the text. You're not trying to hide anything. It's just wrongheaded and somewhat petulant, but I'm not sure I would call it an ethical breach of real magnitude. It certainly doesn't make the author look good.

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    I agree with this answer: the practice is justly denigrated, but that is not quite the same as being unethical. – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '14 at 1:25

A citation is not a recommendation. One of the purposes of citing a paper is that readers of your paper can check what use you have made of it. I would say that this is at least as important when you are criticising that paper as it is in the contrary case. If you criticise the paper and do not make it as easy as possible for the reader to find that paper, then it could be felt that you are hindering any attempt to tell whether or not it is in fact your comments that are "unscientific".

(I am sure you understand that this is hypothetical and I am not suggesting that there is any such intention in your own case.)

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  • The reference was very complete (including volume, pages, and so on), so I don't think it was an attempt to hide it. It is not difficult to find, provided one has access to the journal in question. – Davidmh Oct 16 '14 at 8:16

This looks an awful lot like a reference to a secondary source where for whatever reasons the authors were unable to find primary source (in your example the paper by Smith and colleagues) and instead is relying on the secondary sources by Brown and Lawrence. In APA style this would look like

In Seidenberg and McClelland's study (as cited in Coltheart, Curtis, Atkins, & Haller, 1993), ...

and wouldn't have the date and journal of the primary source, but there is substantial variation in citation styles.

If, however, the paper by Smith and colleagues is readily available, then it is bad form not to use the primary source and instead rely on the secondary sources.

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    They went to great lengths to give the full reference, including all authors (and they were a few), page, and volume number, so I think that is unlikely. Also, they didn't say "as cited in" or anything like that. – Davidmh Oct 16 '14 at 8:18

It's not obviously ethically bad, but it's a poor way of going about things. You cite papers for a number of reasons:

  • To place your own work in context (to show the way in which your work relates to that of others).
  • To help your readers find other papers in the field.
  • (Somewhat more tenuously) To demonstrate your own awareness of the broader field in which you work and thereby imply that there might be a slightly higher chance that you know the subject well enough to make your work interesting. (Of course, work done in isolation can also be interesting, so this doesn't entirely hold water.)
  • (Sad, but not entirely uncommon) To avoid your paper being sent back by a reviewer who was saddened that his/her own paper wasn't cited.

In none of these cases does citing a paper in and of itself imply that you endorse the contents of that paper. (In the last case, people have been known to say mildly complimentary things, which do count as endorsing the paper to some extent, but the fact of citation itself doesn't.)

As a result, you should cite all papers that you feel are relevant, and explain your views on them in the text. If you think a paper's relevant but rubbish, you can always say things like:

In \cite{Foo}, Foo et al. described an early method for crawling Bars. This work unfortunately had a number of significant downsides, including its failure to maximise your whiskey intake per unit time. More recent works \cite{Baz} have addressed this issue by focusing exclusively on Whiskey Bars.

It's less helpful to say something like:

There was some work by Foo et al. that focused on generic Bars and wasn't great. However, the exciting work by Baz and Wibble \cite{Baz}, which focuses exclusively on Whiskey Bars, has addressed this issue.

As a reader, I might still want to read the sub-optimal work of Foo et al. to better understand the limitations of their approach. By citing it, you help me do that.

More generally, judging the quality of a paper by the number of citations is an inaccurate business at best - you can write a bad paper and get all of your friends to cite it, and you can write a good paper that gets ignored. Number of citations tells you a little about the impact your paper has had (if only on your friends in some cases), but nothing about whether it's any good. A bad paper can have a greater impact than a good one.

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No. If some existing work is really somewhat pseudoscience only, it is unlikely to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, to start from. However if major flaws have only been discovered after publication, such history must be cited properly, including the published reference to the analysis, why unscientific.

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One thing to consider is that one way to judge the quality and impact of a specific publication is to actually look at the references that cite it. If you formally cite it, you will appear in such a list:

Papers citing "A is good", J. Smith et al., J. Sci. Pa. 1, 23


  • "A is actually terrible", A. Green and B. Black, J. Sci. Pa. 4, 56


An unorthodox citation will remove your paper from this, and will deprive people investigating J. Smith et al.'s claims of the chance to easily find your refutation.

I should note that no literature search is really complete until you take at least the key works in the field and look carefully at the papers that cite it, and this is something that people do look at.

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