Avoiding erroneous citations in ecological research: Read before you apply

10 April 2017

Šigut, Martin; Šigutová, Hana; Pyszko, Petr; Dolny, Ales; Drozdová, Michaela; Drozd, Pavel

The Shannon–Wiener index is a popular nonparametric metric widely used in ecological research as a measure of species diversity. We used the Web of Science database to examine cases where papers published from 1990 to 2015 mislabelled this index. We provide detailed insights into causes potentially affecting use of the wrong name “Weaver” instead of the correct “Wiener”. Basic science serves as a fundamental information source for applied research, so we emphasize the effect of the type of research (applied or basic) on the incidence of the error. Biological research, especially applied studies, increasingly uses indices, even though some researchers have strongly criticized their use. Applied research papers had a higher frequency of the wrong index name than did basic research papers. The mislabeling frequency decreased in both categories over the twenty-five year period, although the decrease lagged in applied research. Moreover, the index use and mistake proportion differed by region and authors’ countries of origin. Our study also provides insight into citation culture, and results suggest that almost 50% of authors have not actually read their cited sources. Applied research scientists in particular should be more cautious during manuscript preparation, carefully select sources from basic research, and read theoretical background articles before they apply the theories to their research. Moreover, theoretical ecologists should liaise with applied researchers and present their research for the broader scientific community. Researchers should point out known, often-repeated errors and phenomena not only in specialized books and journals but also in widely used and fundamental literature.