Ideas

Brainiac

On Second Thought: The phantom menace

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One way to measure the influence of a scientific paper is to count how many times other researchers cite it. And 400 citations is a hefty number — particularly for a paper that doesn’t exist. Pieter Kroonenberg, a statistician in the Netherlands, recently discovered the existence of the phantom reference. Not only was the article, “The art of writing a scientific article,” an illusion, so was the journal that “published” the manuscript: the Journal of Science Communications. Turns out, the article was intended to be a formatting reference for authors writing for journals from Elsevier, one of the world’s largest science publishers. It’s the scientific equivalent of those online resume templates on which “John Q. Public” from “Anytown, USA” has a phone number with a “555” prefix. Most of the citations to the fictitious paper appeared in conference proceedings, which tend to report preliminary research presented at the meetings, and were written by people with shaky English. But about 40 of the citations turned up in more prestigious titles, suggesting that authors with no excuse were being sloppy.