Even brilliant ideas are never new: The need to cite appropriate references in a research paper

Andre K. Geim, who shared the 2010 Nobel prize in physics, once said:  “One should realize that ideas are never new. However brilliant, every idea is always based on previous knowledge”. For example, the internet would not have been possible without integrated circuits which in turn would not have been possible without the invention of transistors.

Unlike the journalists who write political news and prefer not to divulge their sources, researchers who create new knowledge and publish it in professional journals have a different task to do: reveal their sources of information. Therefore, when the editor has to make a decision on a research manuscript, the foremost point that needs to be checked is whether the author has attempted to establish the significance of the proposed work in relation to existing knowledge by citing appropriate references.

As an editor, I have frequently come across cases where many authors botch on this important attribute. The universal belief that we cite references to protect ourselves from plagiarism is not wholly right. Suitable citation of references is important not only to acknowledge the role of other published research on the author’s work but also to establish a verifiable context for the new idea. Providing relevant references in the paper will also inform the reader about ideas that back the new proposal and those that highlight the limitations of the previous work.

While it is important to cite even older papers to point out the historical background to the author’s work, it is even more imperative for the editor to ensure that authors cite papers that have been published during the last couple of years. This will establish the relevance of the work submitted to the journal as timely and current research. Being an editor, I am quite sensitive to the fact that inadequate referencing will also deprive the readers of locating the background material required to comprehend the work presented in the paper.

It turns out that occasionally even reputable researchers have a penchant to not cite some references by design. As displeasing as it may be to have one’s work not cited, it is even harder to tolerate if someone tries to project their work as a new idea without citing prior art. This is where reviewers and the editor should step in to correct any conspicuous omissions of referencing. Vigilant editors and reviewers should treat exclusion of key references in a research paper as an abominable practice and take corrective steps.

Before I make my editorial decision on a paper submitted to my journal, I always bear in my mind that accurate referencing is as vital as the idea that the author is espousing.

This article is available at http://editorresources.taylorandfrancisgroup.com

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