This post is a re-worked and updated version of a post that appeared on my blog, the Undergraduate Science Librarian, in October 2011.

One of the most fun sciencey things I've seen lately is the #overlyhonestmethods meme on twitter. This was a cathartic exercise for scientists to say out loud the things that influence how they do science that often don't make it into the clinical jargon-filled primary research articles they write. There were lots of comments about the length of an experiment having to do with working hours or meeting times, some amusing comments about picking field locations due to weather, road access and good food and/or drink, and a few confessions regarding analytical equipment held together with duct tape.

But there was a whole section of confessions about how scientists work with the scientific literature.

One that caught my eye (and many others) was this comment by twitter user @droenn:

Tweet from @droenn: "I cited this paper because everyone else has cited it, even though onone has ever seen an actual copy #overlyhonestmethods"

This tweet reminded me of a very clear example where this must have happened many, many times.

A student approached the reference desk looking for this article:

Tan, D. X.; Chen, L. D.; Poeggeler, B.; Manchester, L. C.; Reiter, R. J. (1993). Melatonin: a potent, endogenous hydroxyl radical scavenger. Endocrine J 1: 5760.

The student had found the citation via the Wikipedia entry for Melatonin (the citation has since been removed). We started with the usual process: look up the journal, find the right volume and go from there. Except when you look up Endocrine Journal, you find that the volume number doesnt match the year, nor are there any articles with a similar title in the publication. Author searches in the same journal also yield nothing.

Since the citation came from Wikipedia, its seemed reasonable that there was an error. Searches on Google and Google Scholar failed to find a copy of the article, but Google Scholar indicated that the article has been cited over 1300 times! The student found another article by some of the same authors on the topic and was content, but as a librarian, I wanted the answer.

Theoretically, the article had to exist, since it has been cited so many times. So I tried other databases: PubMed didn't list the article at all, and Scopus indicated that over 1100 folks had cited it, but still didn't have any information other than the citation.

So I started looking for similarly named publications. The journal Endocrine Journal is published by the Japan Endocrine Society and the years dont match up, so perhaps the abbreviation referred to something different? I located a journal called simply Endocrine (try finding that one in a Google search!) published by Springer. This started to look promising because the first volume of of Endocrine was published in 1993, which was just want I needed. But volume 1 isnt available on the publishers website, so I couldnt confirm my suspicions.

If Endocrine is the journal we want, why cant I find it indexed in a database? I checked indexing information. PubMed only started indexing it in 1997. Scopus started indexing it in 1993, but only with the fifth issue, and we need issue 1. And Google Scholar wont have it (other than the citation) because it isnt on the Springer website or in PubMed.

I started to think that the citation really refers to an article in Endocrine, not Endocrine Journal. But Scopus has over 1000 folks citing Endocrine Journal. It seems unlikely that so many people would make the same error.

Then I checked Ulrichs guide to periodicals. We have it in print here, and the brief entry illustrates the missing piece of our puzzle.

The entry in Ulrich's clearly indicated this journal's former title, a fact that is missing from the publisher's website.

The entry in Ulrich's clearly indicated this journal's former title, a fact that is missing from the publisher's website.

From 1993 to 1994 there were two Endocrine Journals!

For a brief period of time (<2 years), Endocrine called itself Endocrine Journal. Perhaps they discovered the Japan Endocrine Societys Endocrine Journal as the internet was making international collaboration easier.

Since I found the original ISSN (0969-711X, a number used to identify a periodical, no two have the same number), I submitted an ILL request to confirm my thoughts. Sure enough, heres the article masthead, but with Macmillan Press as the publisher, not Springer. The early issues available on the Springer website have Stockton Press as the publisher in 1995. It seems to have changed publisher several times.

Screen shot of the PDF file I received via ILL. Note the publisher at the top.

Screen shot of the PDF file I received via ILL. Note the publisher at the top.

Whats the moral of this story?

  1. Journals really need to select unique names. (Do new journals think about Google-ability of their names?)
  2. Given my difficulty tracking this down, I have to ask: How many of the 1100-1300 folks that cited this article actually tracked it down? I bet there are some who never laid eyes on it.

And citing something without looking at it can cause problems. Let's say that Jane Doe looked at the original article in 1994 and described its conclusions in a few sentences in her paper. When John Doe (no relation) couldn't find the original 1993 article, he used some similar sentences to Jane's paper and cited the 1993 article. If this happens a lot, that original brief description can become corrupted, and the original article could end up being cited to support conclusions that it doesn't, in fact, support.

So, I suppose there is one more moral to this story:

  • If you can't find a copy of the article, don't just cite it, ask a librarian to find it for you.