On the Vaporsource

Reference can get wild and woolly sometimes. Today, I worked with someone who was trying to track down this citation:

Van der Geer, J., J. A. J. Hanraads, and R. A. Lupton. "The art of writing a scientific article." J. Sci. Commun 163, no. 2 (2000): 51-59.

Google Scholar pulls up this citation:

Screenshot from Google Scholar for "The Art of Writing a Scientific Article."

Screenshot from Google Scholar for "The Art of Writing a Scientific Article."

Heavily cited, but just a citation, no trace of how to get to the actual article. I gave a try in our library's discovery tool, toodled around our list of e-journals, looked through Ulrich's to see what I could find -- the Journal of Science Communication (didn't start publishing until 2002) and Science Communication (no trace of these authors) were both strikeouts, and I couldn't find any trace of the actual Journal of Scientific Communications at all.

This is a not uncommon kind of reference question, where some widely cited article is strangely hard to track down. In my experience, it is often because some part of the citation is flawed. I tweeted something asking if we have a term of art for this kind of thing. (Props to Ryan Randall for suggesting vaporsource, riffing on vaporware.)

Several folks jumped in to help me track it down, and we went over the same few paths. HOWEVER, Kelly and Maggie noted that this article might just be made up. And indeed, many of the hits for this article turn out to be instructions for submitting to journals, like this one. I communicated this back to the patron, who then sent me this article (paywalled). It is a peer-reviewed article in an engineering journal. The first three citations are all sources listed in that Elsevier journal submission guidelines page -- our elusive "Art of Writing a Scientific Article" article, Strunk and White, and another apparently made-up (and heavily cited) piece about "How to prepare an electronic version of your article."

Screenshot from Google Scholar for "How to prepare an electronic version of your article."

Screenshot from Google Scholar for "How to prepare an electronic version of your article."

Given the unlikelihood that Strunk and White provide data about the impacts that the lack of electricity can have on different health outcomes, I think it is fair to imagine that these authors dropped in these citations as a reminder to themselves of the required formatting, and then forgot to swap them out for the actual source.

What can we take from this? For one thing, what an example of the fallibility of the process of scholarly publishing. Given the process of peer review and editing, we might expect reviewers oreditors, if not the authors, of this work to have caught this error. If it happened once or twice, okay...but literally, hundreds of times? Of course, this also means that may be gaps in the legitimate citations of these articles, if they left off sources they actually did mean to cite. What a complicated web, eh?

I also find myself thinking back to a workshop I attended by Joseph Bizup, about his BEAM model for helping students navigate different rhetorical strategies for presenting and using evidence. In my reference interaction with this patron, we walked through several of the supposed citations of the original elusive article. In some, as noted above, the error was obvious. Others, like this one (paywalled) seem to be using the source as if it is legitimate -- the citation is one in a string of citations actually about writing, mostly about writing scientific articles. Although I'd like to give the author the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps it is a wry joke? -- it does seem very likely that they just popped the (heavily cited) source in without thinking too hard about tracking it down. Or, since it also uses Strunk and White, this could be another case of what happened above. But, untangling the ways that these authors use (or don't actually use) the information in the cited sources is a way to make meaning out of the texts.

Is it possible that something even weirder is going on here? Like, that Elsevier (unintentionally?) pops these in at some point in the publishing process? I'm also open to other interpretations -- I'm enjoying puzzling over this. Anyway, blessed are the reference rabbit holes and the mysteries just waiting all around us.