References – science or decorations?

By Jan Tunér


Scientific articles follow a standard form with abstract, introduction, material and methods, results, discussion, conclusion and references. This is a good approach but not necessarily a guarantee for success. The weakest parts are often found in the introduction and in then the discussion. These two sections contain the majority of the quoted literature references, so if poor, the list of references will also be poor.

The major shortcoming in these two sections is that apples and oranges are frequently compared. One study with 10 mW red may be “compared” with another of 500 mW infrared. This is a way to fill out a required gap but not adding anything of value. If of any value, the compared studies should be quoted with the full laser parameters. And in the discussion, the possible similarities and differences should be analyzed. This lack of substance in the discussion has been covered before in the Annals.

But now to the references themselves. Are they just a decoration in the article or are they relevant? Too often the latter. Not only that the problem already started in the introduction and the discussion – the chosen references may be irrelevant in the first place. In a recent study on pain, the authors listed 38 references. 18 were from the period 2001 and up till now. 16 from the period 1991–2000 and 4 from 1985-1990.  How relevant is a paper from 1985? (0.9 mW HeNe) How relevant is a clinical study, even a double blind one, from 1993? How relevant is a meta-analysis from 1993? In the year 2000 there were about 20 LPT-related articles on PubMed, today some 3700. So what was there to analyze in 1993? Several of the references were not related to LPT per se, so the percentage of outdated references is higher that the figures suggest.

Misspelling of names in the list of references may be a minor problem, but the correct spelling is easily available of PubMed and with the intricate cross reference system in science these days, some authors will fall out of the system. If the names are written with signs not used in English, use the PubMed spelling. Easy as that.

A poor list of references reveals one thing: the authors have made a study but not really understood what they were doing.