An Open Letter: Journal References

Dearest High and Mighty Journal to Whom I Wish to Submit My Manuscript and Thereby Become Famous:
Greetings, from your most humble supplicant.
Verily, I have polished my manuscript. It is a thing of beauty. It is within your rather arbitrary and extremely paltry word limits, for truly, this humble scientist understands that succinctness and clarity are essential in scientific writing. My figures have been lovingly crafted to convey my totally awesome data, and my standard errors are indeed a thing of beauty. And so, O Great Journal, I offer this paper up unto you, in hopes that you and your reviewers shall think kindly upon my work and thereby make my name great amongst the scientists.
But I have a bit of a bone to pick…

…if this little, humble scientist can speak up for a minute. The references. You’re limiting me to WHAT, now?! do you realize the impact this could have on this little scientist’s career?!
Seriously, Sci doesn’t understand why some journals limit references so severely. They don’t take up that much space (at least, not if you use a sensible citation format, Proceedings on the National Academy of Sciences is a good example, but for real, Neuropsychopharmacology, tighten it up a little!), and they are USEFUL. Every little grad student knows the value of mining a really good introduction or discussion for all their excellent sources. And a lot of times, a simple fact has several major discoverers. And it’s nice to list them all, so you don’t feel awful having to cut a citation. And cutting citations does feel awful.
First of all, a lot of times, when you have to cut one, you choose the littler fish in the pond. This is because everyone will know the big fish’s finding, but it sure isn’t very fair to the little fish, who could use the citation (people track these things you know). And of course, most of the time, the bigger fish discovered it first, and you need to use the earlier citation to show that you’re all lit savvy. You put in the little fish, and not the big fish, and the next thing you know, everyone’s looking at you all snarky and saying, “what, you didn’t KNOW that this was discovered in 19-stone-age?!”
Secondly, more citations shows your handle on the lit, that you are up on work from the big fish AND from the little fish. Looks very good in front of committee members, that one.
And most importantly, you can’t really SAY anything in science without citing it. Scientists, we like proof. And so you often need a lot of citations, or you end up having to NOT write specific facts that you can’t afford the citation for. And this just sucks. In today’s modern world, where we are getting increasingly specialized and deeper into the nitty gritty of our fields, we have to include facts in the global realm, as well as all the little nitty gritty leading up to our totally awesome work. And it’s really annoying to be unable to really show how beautifully your work fits into the literature, because often, you can only present a small percent of it due to reference limitations. Basically, to Sci, limitations on references mean your paper can’t sometimes say all that it SHOULD say, all the possible interpretations of your study, and all the possible limitations.
So, my Dearest Darlingest Journal that is going to Make Sci’s Career, ease up on the refs. You can spare the space, and my science will look all the better!!!
With much humble feelings of gratitude,

5 Responses

  1. And then what happens if you submit to a ref-limiting journal but end up publishing in a limitless journal? Are you going to have to put all those little fish back in again?

  2. i wrote the most comprehensive intro possible within word limits, because as my grad sub-sub-subfield expands, that mofo will totally rack up some citations. nobody had really summed up the lit in sub-sub-subfield previously.
    now if subfield megajournal accepts it… is another story 😛

  3. Get ’em!

  4. I don’t know if this would work (or even makes sense), but why not create a paper with the framework and all the references (and perhaps a glimpse of the discovery) and submit it to an “easy” journal that doesn’t limit ref’s, then cite your own paper (as “forthcoming”) in the paper that’s going to make you famous?
    Question: are there journals that focus on inter-disciplinary work that have looser rules about ref’s? It’s a little hard to believe there aren’t, given the number of ref’s such work might have to cite.

  5. AK – I’m not sure if this was your intention, but it sounds like you’re describing a set of papers that cover the same (or similar) results but published seperately. This is generally frowned upon as looking like trying to artificially boost your publication record, not like using a lower impact journal with looser requirements to properly give everyone credit (what you seem to be saying). Now if you were publishing something else in another journal that would let you properly cite everyone then great, but there’s still the problem of having to choose you gets cut from the big name journal that’s likely to get read by more people.
    I can sympathsize Sci. I’m working on expanding a really basic technique so it can be interpreted to get more info out of it. Which means once I get around to writing up my work my intro will be mostly saying all the things it gets used in already and what gaps there are that I’m filling in. I’m a little terrified that some big name will be the reviewer and be horribly offended that I didn’t cite their famous paper as one of my examples out of hundreds in the literature.

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