Everyday gripes of a journal editor, part 94: why can’t people cite online references properly?

Here in the Annals’ office I’ve just been checking through an accepted paper before passing it on to our typesetters so that proofs can be sent to the authors, and not for the first time I’ve found myself trawling through the internet trying to track down incorrectly cited online-only, open access articles in the reference list. Open access is a wonderful thing, making science available to everyone immediately on publication, and the number of references to such articles in papers we publish is gradually increasing, particularly in the field of genetics. But ‘open access’ doesn’t equate to ‘ease of access’ if authors don’t cite the articles correctly.

Let’s take an example: a paper by Robert Grant-Downton and colleagues in BMC Genomics (chosen entirely at random, honestly, even though its corresponding author does happen to be Chairman of the Annals of Botany Company!). The citation for this paper, as clearly stated on both the online and PDF versions, is BMC Genomics 10: 643. doi:10.1186/1471-2164-10-643: yet if ten authors were to refer to this article I would expect at least four of them to cite it as BMC Genomics 10: 16; which is because the PDF version has 16 pages (and despite the fact that BMC helpfully write ‘page number not for citation purposes’ underneath every page number!). And I doubt that one in ten authors would include the doi number at the end of the citation. True, this may seem a bit of a luxury if you’ve got the volume and issue number correct, but the doi plays the role of ‘Mr Reliable’ – it’s a unique identifier that’s always there: even if the website address should change the doi will still lead you to the paper (especially if you bookmark this site: http://dx.doi.org/).

For our own papers, we publish a corrected-proof version in our AoBPreview pages before the final version subsequently appears, complete with volume and page numbers, in a printed issue – but the doi number remains constant and will always take you to the most up-to-date version (sharp-eyed browsers will spot that links on this blog go via http://dx.doi.org/ and not directly to our OUP website where the actual files are stored, so we don’t have to update them when the paper moves from Preview into a monthly issue).

So authors, a simple plea: take a few extra seconds to cite online-only articles correctly – it will be appreciated by journal offices everywhere and, more importantly, by all those readers who find themselves looking at a paper on bacteria (BMC Genomics 10: 16) rather than the one on Arabidopsis (BMC Genomics 10: 643) that they thought you’d referred them to.

  • Nice piece on “Mutations of Citations” in The Scientist this week: http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57689/ Opinion: Mutations of citations: Just like genetic information, citations can accumulate heritable mutations

    An important initiative got off the ground at the start of Septenber 2010 – tracking the identity and names of authors: ORCID, Open Researcher & Contributor ID, http://www.orcid.org ORCID aims to overcome the author/contributor name ambiguity problem in scholarly communications by creating a central registry of unique identifiers for individual researchers and an open and transparent linking mechanism. I expect the Jim Smith’s, Yang Chen’s, and Joshi Patel’s will be helped by this. More about it from Martin Fenner at http://blogs.nature.com/mfenner/2010/01/03/orcid-or-how-to-build-a-unique-identifier-for-scientists-in-10-easy-steps
    You will see Annals of Botany among the supporters: http://www.orcid.org/directory