The practice of citing references is a critical part of scientific writing and serves many purposes. It acknowledges sources, establishes credibility, contextualises research, and facilitates replication and verification. It webs the community’s research together, allows us to trace the history of ideas, and influences the direction of future research.
A new paper by KLI fellow Hari Sridhar and Priti Bangal examines the citation patterns and the actual content of papers referring to nuclearity in flocks. Mixed-species flocks of forest birds, which typically consist of insectivorous species that forage and move together, are of particular interest to researchers. The paper found that two terms related to the roles that different species play within these flocks have come to dominate the literature: ‘nuclear species’ and ‘flock leader’, referring to important species within the flock.
The authors found that a single paper, Martin Moynihan's 1962 monograph on mixed-species flocks in Panama, had a significant impact on the understanding of nuclearity in flocks, being cited twice as much as any other paper. However, the study also revealed a mismatch between what the cited papers contained and what they were cited for. Many ideas presented as universally true were, in fact, speculative or based on local observations. Bangal and Sridhar found that Moynihan's work was frequently mis-cited, often misrepresenting his definitions and ideas, including, for example, misconstruing the traits associated with nuclearity.
To address these findings, the authors suggest that Moynihan's ideas should be re-evaluated as hypotheses to be tested empirically. Beyond flock research the paper holds broader significance for citation practice in various fields. It sheds light on issues of careless citation, loss of nuance, and potential mis-citation. Hence, Bangal and Sridhar suggest revisiting past practices such as using footnotes to offer additional context and using quotation marks to accurately represent claims from the original papers. These practices could help to foster more accurate and nuanced citations.
Bangal, P., & Sridhar, H. (2023). Revisiting the ‘nuclear species’ concept: do we really know what we think we know?. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 378(1878), 20220108.