Sunday, April 7, 2013

Garnish References

A point has recently come up of describing the tendency of some authors to include many references in their bibliographies that they have not actually consulted themselves. Often, these references are taken from other, cited work, as can be seen in the faithful preservation of spelling errors, number transpositions, or even just non-existent works. These references give the impression that the author is quite widely read, and some of them may be used as a scientific basis for "facts" that are not, in fact, true.

I came across one of these when a student was looking for a reference for that statement that people retain some percentage of what they read, more of what they hear, and even more of what they do. She found some references, but was unable to find the source given. At that time we looked around, but were just not able to find an original study that would support this statement commonly accepted as gospel truth in didaktics.

I just found a good blog entry discussing this problem that Will Thalheimer wrote in 2006: People remember 10%, 20%...Oh Really?. The blog details his quest for the source, and shows lots of fascinating graphs of this "fact", often with "references" given.

At VroniPlag Wiki there is also a case documented that has about 2200 references listed (on 170 pages). The link is to a page that started documenting the erroneous entries, although after about E or F the group lost interest, as there were so many errors.  This doctorate has since been rescinded.

I need a name for these kind of bogus or fictitious references. It has been suggested that they be called Petersilienreferenzen in German, as one often finds a sprig of parsley on one's plate in Germany in an attempt to spruce up the looks of a dish in a restaurant. I think that generalizing this to garnish references is a clearer name in English. Or is there a generally accepted term for these? Do any of my readers have good links to examples of this kind of reference?


  1. Or maybe: (phony) poser references or fake references.

    Most published bestseller books are full of this kind of references. But it's hard to prove, because often there is not even a real reference *in* the text in the first place ...

    It looks like people just the mixed references from other references they used before to spice up their work -- so the originals are hard to find.

  2. and you should not forget the references that are there to make the program chairs happy...

  3. Perhaps "primary citations" and "pseudo-citations" may be properly descriptive.
    I remember many years ago being advised by a colleague before submitting a paper manuscript to a journal to make sure that my references covered all those that "reviewers might consider relevant and necessary".
    But that was 40 years ago and "peer review" may have less cronyism nowadays?

  4. When my students do this, I call it "list boosting," and they do it to convince me they have read widely enough in the topic. If a researcher does it, it's the same behaviour with a slightly different motive, to create a little snow flurry that makes it harder to see the grounding of an assertion. But it's still "list boosting." I don't have a Google account, so this is anonymous, but I teach at Douglas College in Canada.


Please note that I moderate comments. Any comments that I consider unscientific will not be published.