At Least 400 Science Articles Cite Nonexistent ‘Phantom’ Study

Image: Ryan F. Mandelbaum/Screenshot
Image: Ryan F. Mandelbaum/Screenshot

Did you actually read all the works you cited in your high school and college papers? If not, you’re probably not the only one. Because a non-existent paper seems to have been cited over four hundred times by supposedly reputable research.


Leiden University professor Pieter Kroonenberg found the “phantom reference” in a nonexistent journal while hunting for an article on writing scientific articles, according to a post on the blog Retraction Watch. Middlesex University professor Anne-Wil Harzing dug into the issue and found that the article was a made-up citation from the science publisher Elsevier to show authors how to cite works. It’s as if I pasted Lorem ipsum text into this article instead of a quote. Here’s the reference:

Van der Geer, J., Hanraads, J.A.J., Lupton, R.A., 2010. The art of writing a scientific article. J Sci. Commun. 163 (2) 51-59.

Most of the papers that cited the phantom reference were “fairly low-quality conference papers,” Harzing told Retraction Watch. But still, the four hundred all appeared on the reputable Web of Science that indexes scientific articles. The reference pops up over seven hundred times on a Google Scholar Search.

This probably isn’t a case of fraud. “We found it hilarious,” Retraction Watch’s cofounder, journalist, and past professor of mine Ivan Oransky told Gizmodo. The researchers told Retraction Watch that the reference was a mistake, “[but] it makes us sit up, take notice, and wonder how it happens. I would ascribe laziness and failure of quality control.”

Given the “publish-or-perish” attitude of science, there’s lots of places where lower quality work slips through, as well as journals preying on scientists who’ll pay to publish or don’t know any better. The presence of even more junk on the less-filtered Google Scholar results demonstrates that, well, there’s a lot of crap out there.

But in this case, since no one is outwardly committing fraud, Oransky hopes that this silly story will help continue the conversation about improving scientific publishing.


“If this is a story that makes it more comfortable for people to try and tackle [these issues] as opposed to out and out fraud, then I’m happy.”

[Retraction Watch]


Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds


Nom de pixel

This comes as no surprise. Finding the original source of a scientific reference can be really hard. There are some papers that reference a reference and so on, yet when I get back a few generations to the article that everything was supposedly based on, it doesn’t say what it is supposed to say. Some overworked academic who was first author cited a source, and one of the other authors might have checked to make sure that the source existed, but no one made sure that it said what it was supposed to say.

There is also the issue of circular referencing, where authors just keep citing their own work to drive up their stats.