The “phantom reference:” How a made-up article got almost 400 citations

Pieter Kroonenberg, an emeritus professor of statistics at Leiden University in The Netherlands, was puzzled when he tried to locate a paper about academic writing and discovered the article didn’t exist. In fact, the journal—Journal of Science Communications—also didn’t exist.

Perhaps Kroonenberg’s most bizarre discovery was that this made-up paper, “The art of writing a scientific article,” had somehow been cited almost 400 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Anne-Wil Harzing, a professor of International Management at at Middlesex University in London, who recounted Kroonenberg’s discovery in her blog, wrote:

To cut a long story short, the article appeared to be completely made up and did not in fact exist. It was a “phantom reference” that had been created merely to illustrate Elsevier’s desired reference format.

Here’s the reference from Elsevier’s reference style section, part of its author guidelines (we’ve seen examples that cite the paper as from 2000 as well):

Van der Geer, J., Hanraads, J.A.J., Lupton, R.A., 2010. The art of writing a scientific article. J Sci. Commun. 163 (2) 51-59.

Puzzled, Harzing set out to understand how so many authors could cite this paper.

Harzing found that nearly 90% of the citations were for conference proceedings papers, and nearly two-thirds of these appeared in Procedia conference volumes, which are published by Elsevier.

When examining some of the papers more closely, Harzing found “most citations to the phantom reference occurred in fairly low-quality conference papers,” and were written by authors with poor English. She said she suspects that some authors may not have understood that they were supposed to replace the template text with their own or may have mistakenly left in the Van der Geer reference while using the template to write their paper. There may be minimal quality control for these conference papers, says Harzing; still, she found that the phantom reference did appear in about 40 papers from established journals.

The “phantom reference:” How a made-up article got almost 400 citations

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