No One Really Reads Academic Papers

Academics do a lot of research. The pressure to perform research in order to earn tenure generates, by some estimates, about 1.5 million new articles a year.

Some scholars have critiqued the quality of this research, pointing out that only 45 percent of the articles published in top journals are cited within the first five years after publication, but scholars are supposed to build on existing knowledge and use that to develop their own thinking.

Except it turns out that most of the cited research probably isn’t read. In fact, most of the research academics actually cite in their own papers they likely haven’t looked at.

That’s according to a paper by scholars at University of California, Los Angeles indicating that some 80 percent of authors include citations to articles they probably haven’t read. As the paper explains:

We report a method for estimating what percentage of people who cited a paper had actually read it. The method is based on a stochastic modeling of the citation process that explains empirical studies of misprint distributions in citations. Our estimate is that only about 20% of citers read the original.

The researchers apparently estimate this based on repeated misprints. In other words, if my references repeat misprints used in a study published earlier, it’s likely I haven’t actually read the study I’m misprinting but, rather, just copied the earlier study’s references.

All of this is not to say that researchers are straight-up dishonest (nowhere in an academic paper does it actually say, after all, “I certify and affirm that I have read and verified all information presented in paper and guarantee that the information is true and correct and that any documents I/we have provided with this study are genuine and that the information contained therein is also true and accurate”) but it is a little, well, disconcerting to think that there’s a possibility that most of the researchers out there are really just cutting and pasting other people’s papers, unread and unimportant, before they introduce their own material.

Disclaimer: I read the paper in question, “Read Before You Cite!” by M. V. Simkin and V. P. Roychowdhury published in Complex Systems, 14 (2003) 269-274, but it was only five pages long, and I basically skipped the equations on pgs. 272-73.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer