Citations of lists – a small moan

I used to do this sort of thing a lot on this blog but with the posts generally slowing it has become rather more rare (for better or worse, most readers would likely go for better I imagine) but it’s time for a moan. This is something I have seen before but recently I’ve had a whole spate of papers to review that do this and it seemed something annoying and common enough to put out publicly so that a) hopefully people will agree with me and b) then some will stop doing it.

This is about points in papers were a big long list appears in the text but then all the citations come at the end. So you get something like ‘…as seen in Tyrannosaurus, Tarbosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Albertasaurus and Zhuchengtyrannus (Smith et al., 1994; Jones, 2001; Smith and Jones, 2005, 2007; Smith and Smith, 2016, 2017).

At best this is annoying and at worst actively cryptic about information. In my example there are six taxa and six papers so you can assume that they realte to these taxa in order, but even if they do, it’s a slight pain to work out exactly which paper refers to which one. I’ve seen examples like this with a dozen papers and then you really do have to move your finger along and count to try and work out which is which. Even so, this assumption may not be true – are those papers certainly in the right order? The only way you can find out or to check is to go and read each to follow it through. The point of citations is a paper trail of what you did and where you got the information from and to credit it correctly. So this list in this format is actually making you redo the work of the author and is hardly something that actually helps communicate information.

Worse, I regularly see such lists have different numbers of points to the number of references given. That means that at least some points are covered by a single reference (if they are more numerous) or multiple points are covered in one reference (if there are more points), but again, it’s impossible to know which is which. You are back to having to reread each paper to check.

In short, for the apparent sake of making a list look slightly nicer on the page, the information the reader often wants, even needs (which paper does or does not directly refer to which of those things in the list, be they taxa, anatomical features, localities or whatever) is obscured. Now, I do get that this easier on the eye to read than say ‘Tyrannosaurus,(Smith et al., 1994),  Tarbosaurs (Jones, 2001),but personally I don’t find that an issue, I’ve read enough papers to skim over references while reading without a problem. More importantly, it is perfectly clear exactly which paper refers to which point and so is far superior to a big lump of papers are the end.

If it’s not immediately clear, it can’t immedaitely be verified and you may have to wade through a large number of references to check. This is hardly the end of times, but for me this really helps neither the author show that they have done what they set out to or the reader follow that up. And so really, please, please, cut out the lists followed by a list of references. Authors don’t do it and referees and editors, pick up on it and ask people to make specific points supported by specific references.

3 Responses to “Citations of lists – a small moan”


  1. 1 Beth 03/04/2018 at 4:07 pm

    Totally agree!

  2. 2 Anonymous 04/04/2018 at 4:17 am

    “In my example there are six taxa and six papers so you can assume that they relate to these taxa in order”

    I would almost say you couldn’t. Most journals I have seen require you to cite consecutive citations in alphabetical order of the first author or order of year published, so you couldn’t immediately tell which reference corresponds to what.

    All the more reason to cite observations like you say.

    • 3 David Hone 04/04/2018 at 12:42 pm

      Ok yes, you could assume that and it might be the logical interpretation but yes I’d agree it might well be a poor assumption. As you say though, it only really supports my point further.


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