What’s Your Reference Question?

June 25, 2009 at 2:32 pm

One of the most common problems facing a researcher or a clinician working on a paper, or a librarian trying to assist them, is citations which are incomplete, incorrect or just plain wrong. What most people don’t realize is how common the problem is.  There have been a number of studies across all specialties of medical literature which found between 19% to 25% of the citations in a journal issue are incorrect, and 8% of those contain a major error.  Librarians in academic medical center and hospital libraries have been unsnarling these puzzles for decades.

Recently a colleague sent me this citation:

Merzenich MM, Randall JN, Stryker MP, et al.  1984. Somatosensory cortical map changes following digit amputation in adult monkeys. Journal of Comprehensive Neurology 224(4):591-605.

She had looked in PubMed, the National Library of Medicine’s online Catalog, and OCLC Worldcat.  She had found the citation in Google multiple times, but could not find the journal anywhere.

My approach was that any journal with a volume number that high was likely indexed. So working with the citation’s most unique elements in PubMed – volume, first page, and year – I discovered that someone had creatively changed the name of the journal from Journal of Comparative Neurology, to “comprehensive”.  Also, as my first Reference mentor taught me years ago, “if one thing is wrong, there is probably more than one thing wrong” – the 2nd author’s name had been converted from Nelson RJ to Randall JN.

Journal titles can be the trickiest to deal with, since over the years the title may vary: words added, sections added not to mention unfamiliar foreign language abbreviations.

A tiny error can be replicated in citations forever, if no one tries to locate the original but just recites the citation as it was found.  Lancet and the British Medical Journal both numbered their volumes 1,2,3 each year.  If the year was off, locating the articles (particularly before online) became tedious, if not improbable.  One of my colleagues spent days tracking down a Lancet article which had been cited hundreds of times, except it was 100 years off.

In a reverse version of the citation problem, some are literally correct (sort of). This citation is cited in PubMed/MEDLINE:

Standardized myocardial segmentation and nomenclature for tomographic imaging of the heart. A statement for healthcare professionals from the Cardiac Imaging Committee of the Council on Clinical Cardiology of the American Heart Association.  Cerqueira, M.D., Weissman, N.J., Dilsizian, V., Jacobs, A.K., Kaul, S., Laskey, W.K., Pennell, D.J., (…), Verani, M.S.  2002 The International Journal of Cardiovascular Imaging 18 (1):539-42

The only way to find it is be absolutely literal and look in the back of 18(1) which has 96 pages, to find a reprint with Circulation’s paging appended to the International Journal of Cardiovascular Imaging.

Patricia J. Erwin
Reference Librarian


Entry filed under: What's Your Reference Question?.

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