It can be pretty frustrating when you're searching for an academic reference and just can't find it anywhere you look – but it's downright spooky if the paper you seek never existed in the first place.
That's exactly what happened to a Dutch statistician who stumbled upon a truly bizarre mystery: more than 400 research papers referencing a 'phantom' article that was never actually written. But if the paper wasn't real, why on Earth were so many researchers citing it?
The statistician in question, Pieter Kroonenberg from Leiden University, first chanced upon the riddle when checking on the submission guidelines for a journal to which he intended to submit a new paper.
In the submission guidelines, Kroonenberg noted a particular paper being used as an example for how to cite research:
• Van der Geer, J., Hanraads, J.A.J., Lupton, R.A., 2000. The art of writing a scientific article. J Sci. Commun. 163 (2) 51–59. [The journal name can also be found with its full title Journal of Science Communications]
Okay, so there's nothing at all remarkable about that, but as recounted on the blog of fellow researcher Anne-Wil Harzing from Middlesex University London, Kroonenberg's curiosity was piqued when he noticed a former colleague was one of the authors of the paper.
Only, a few things didn't seem to add up. Why was the former colleague – an experimental psychologist – dabbling in how-to guides on the art of academic writing?
Also, his name seemed to be misspelled. Kroonenberg's former colleague was John van de Geer, but here the surname was listed as Van der Geer.
It got weirder still. Further investigation revealed there was a Journal of Science Communication, but not a Journal of Science Communications – another strange error.
The thing is, that Italian journal was first published in 2002 – except here the paper appeared to be published in 2000. What gives?
As Harzing explains, after a lot more digging, Kroonenberg discovered "The art of writing a scientific article" was actually a complete fake:
"To cut a long story short, the article appeared to be completely made up and did not in fact exist. It was a "phantom reference" that had been created merely to illustrate Elsevier's desired reference format."
Okay, fair enough – it was a made-up example only ever intended to serve as a template. Perfectly understandable.
But that's not the end of the story.
In the course of searching for "The art of writing a scientific article", Kroonenberg came across almost 400 papers on the Web of Science research database citing the non-existing reference, and even more on Google Scholar.
More digging revealed that most of these citations to the phantom reference "occurred in fairly low-quality conference papers written by authors from emerging economies [seeming] to point to quality control as a potential source of our problem," Harzing writes.
But even so, some 40 of the references were made in respected, established journals – a pretty bizarre phenomenon, but one which Harzing and Kroonenberg put down to "sloppy writing and sloppy quality control".
Retraction Watch got in touch with several of the researchers who listed "The art of writing a scientific article" among their bibliographic references and "all attributed it to some kind of mistake", with at least one saying they would attempt to fix the error with their publisher.
So it looks like there's no ghost – just some really careless editing going on, folks.
While "The art of writing a scientific article" may never have existed, it turns out there is an art to writing a scientific article after all.