RTFP becomes RTFS – on mis-citations and mis-representations in scientific works

Here’s a topic that has started to peeve me a lot, lately. It is a spin-off, or rather a development out of, the old RTFP adage. RTFP means Read the …. paper (I’ll leave it to your imagination what the F means), and is sometimes used on mailing lists (such as the venerable Dinosaur Mailing List) and in internet fora and social media. Lately, it has been slowly falling out of favour, it seems, which may relate to the (relative) quiet of the Intelligent Design idiots. After all, it was often enough those morons who’d spout nonsense about a scientific topic, and get promptly hit with RTFP and a choice quote from the actual source showing them to be full of feces.

But, as I said, lately something has been bothering me a lot, something that has me writing RTFS a lot, instead of RTFP. ‘S’ is for source, in this case. Let me elaborate with three examples, the first of which is harmless and comical in a way, but the other two of which are worrisome.

Case 1) Recently, I received a manuscript for review that cited some of my work. And, it turns out that when I wrote my Plateosaurus range of motion paper, I made a mistake. A stupid but innocent one. I cited a previous work by the author of the manuscript whose new paper I was reviewing now, when in fact I had meant to cite someone else’s work. Seems I simply mis-clicked in my reference manager. Or I mis-remembered which paper dealt with what. Oops! The error was “believable”, because the paper I intended to chide for claiming nonsense dealt with the posture of the foot, the one I accidentally did cite with the posture of the hand of prosauropod dinosaurs. Thus, nobody noticed: not me, not the editor, not the reviewers, and as far as I know no readers – the wrongly cited author seems to be the first person who noticed.

Hilariously, in the paper I was reviewing that poor maligned author accidentally turned the tables on me: he cites two of my papers for (rather stupid) things I didn’t say! Neither of the two papers remotely deals with the topic of the paragraph in which they are cited! Obviously, I gleefully pointed this out in my review (and uses the chance to clear up my own mistake, and apologize for it).

Case 2) This year, a paper came out that had me scratching my head. There was some excellent new data in it, really cool stuff, and I immediately agreed with much of the conclusion based on it. But, it also cited some older works by others, and drew conclusion based on the combination of those older papers and the new data – conclusions that I simply couldn’t believe. In fact, I couldn’t believe the cited stuff from the old papers! Not that I am an expert in the field those papers all dealt with, and not that I could explain what was wrong, and why – thus, the term “believe” is the right choice here. It simply didn’t make sense to me, and although I am the first to say that data beats convictions, in this case I could not get rid of some nagging doubt.

Add to that the annoying turn of events that I was preparing a grant application, and the basis for the intended research was the very hypothesis that the new combo of old papers and new data cast doubt on. Application dead in the water right there! Gargh!

A few days ago I now received an email from an esteemed colleague asking me to translate an old German paper. A paper dealing with a highly similar topic. Well, turns out some of the stuff supposedly “novel” about last years surprise paper wasn’t novel, but could be found in the very old German manuscript. But that happens, especially with foreign languages. What’s important for the story here is that my esteemed colleague was as unbelieving as I was about the new claim, and that he knows about the subject and had gone to the bother of checking all the old cited papers in detail – and golly, they do not say what this year’s paper claims they say! In fact, this year’s paper makes a double misrepresentation: first, it implicitly claims the old works include test set-ups they didn’t, then it claims they conclude something they don’t. Together, these (accidental, I believe) errors stand the old work on its head, and result in the conclusion that makes no sense to me. If you correct the basis for the new conclusion, you have to revert it, and it all makes sense again.

The good thing is that my grant application can now be revived 😀

Case 3) Another esteemed colleague complains that a recent paper grossly misrepresents his own work: where he used “likely” or “possibly”, the new work claims he made a statement of fact – essentially, his measured conclusions are being polarized by the new paper,a classic strawman argument version. I find such unnecessary antagonism or sloppiness (no idea which it is) un-collegial and annoying.

oh, now that I think of it, there was a Case 4, too: I wrote in a review last year: “I do not believe that this is actually what [ source ] claims! In fact, he seems to claim something quite a lot different.”

So, it seems that currently, it is not the ignorant religious nutcases, the laypeople and the fanboys who are the problem, the people who haven’t read the paper they comment on, or at least have not read it thoroughly, but rather it is sloppy colleagues who commit the crime! Worse, they do not do so in emails or on the internet, they drag the misrepresentations into the scientific literature!

What can we do about this?

Firstly, as writers of publications we can double and triple check: does the paper I am about to cite really say what I seem to remember it says? RTFS again when you insert the citation!

Secondly, as reviewers, we must do more than a token effort to check the sources given in papers we review. RTFS for key claims in papers, and make sure that they say what the authors claim they do. And in your message to the editor, point out if previous works are misrepresented. Make clear that these errors MUST be fixed, or the paper rejected.

Lastly, as readers, we should RTFS before we believe a claim. And use any form of public commenting, including rebuttal papers and letters, to point out gross errors we find. Politely, but firmly.

I know it is a lot of work, but dammit, we’re not doing this for fun! We’re supposed to be professionals, and as professional we have an obligation to do our f-ing jobs!



…..and by the way: happy holidays!


(quidquid it est, timeo plateos et dona ferentis link to wikipedia for explanation)


About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
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