This I Believe

Thomas - Tucson, Arizona
Entered on February 10, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: science

As a scientist, I believe in citing precedence. This is something that all fledgling scientists in graduate school are taught to do. But soon after graduation, we quickly become preoccupied with directing our own laboratories, and we seem to forget how crucial citing precedence is to the integrity of our profession. Simply put, citing precedence is the practice of acknowledging the key contributions of prior research whenever we write up our own scientific papers for publication. I do not view this simply as a scientific courtesy – it is a professional obligation that sets the record straight.

When I was in graduate school way back in the 20th century, literature review was a daunting task. I would spend days on end in the biology library combing through reference catalogues, searching for every research article I could find that had something, anything to do with my research interests. The reference librarian would hide when she saw me coming because she knew that I was the punk who would always tie up the single phone modem in the library that provided the entire biology faculty access to a scientific literature database. Today, by contrast, we sit at our desks, push a few buttons, and within minutes Google our way through terabytes of data and extract a comprehensive, fully-formatted list of articles that are directly relevant to our own research topic. Why, then, are many of these articles not cited in the contemporary literature?

Whenever I generate a new hypothesis or design a new experiment, I never lose sight of the fact that years of prior research have contributed to the development of these ideas. And believe me, a scientist’s ideas can come from the strangest places! Take my own field of neuroscience as an example. I still get wide-eyed stares from my students when I reveal to them the animal species that was used to tease apart the basic electrical principles that underlie how nerve cells work. These Nobel-winning experiments were not performed in a primate, or even in a lab rat, but in the squid! I believe that it is vital to recognize the decisive contributions of prior research findings in shaping our own current ideas, and even more vital to pass this sense of reverence on to future scientists. Now, do the folks in my lab cite the squid papers in every research article that we publish? No, of course not. But I do insist that my graduate students cite the seminal papers that have helped to guide their research, irrespective of what organism happened to be used for the experiments. Their willingness to give credit where credit is due is a measure of their scientific integrity. In my opinion, science has and will continue to benefit from celebrating biological diversity, and groundbreaking accomplishments in the biological sciences, whether derived from vertebrate or invertebrate research, should be honored and remembered, not hidden away. Scientists and educators need to continue to cite precedence. As a member of the scientific community, I believe it’s the least we can do.