A little mystery

Accuracy in all aspects of scholarship is critical. It seems increasingly to me, as a journal editor, that authors are taking less care with citations than ever before. It’s a bit like what we hear about pilots getting lax because they know their planes have autopilot—authors no longer make extensive files of source publications because they can view an abstract online with a couple of clicks and use one or another citation service to get automatic citations. One problem for another time is how this seems to lead to ritual citation. But more to the point of this post, it leads to errant citations, if the author is pasting from a citation service (or worse, from another paper whose author pasted it, etc., etc.) rather than keying a citation from a source document. Of course, the story I’m about to tell might just not have anything to do with any of this; I’ve no way of knowing how this happened.

When we prepare an issue of Knowledge Organization for publication we do several things that involve cross-checking for accuracy. One of them is verifying all of the citations in the text and the accompanying references in the reference list. Sometimes, despite having three different people working on this (as a cross-check, of course) something will slip through the cracks and we’ll find ourselves at the twelfth hour having to hold up production because a mystery develops. This one had to do with a citation. The issue was ready for press and we realized nobody had answered the question about what this abbreviated citation really was for:

Ranganathan, S. R. 1967. Areas for research in library and information science (development of library science. 6). Library science 4: 235-93.

Immediately one question was obvious, and that was why there was something like a series statement in the title portion of a journal article citation. I asked my colleagues to verify the citation and was told nothing like that could be found anywhere. We all tried looking it up in various ways. It seemed very curious that we could not find this citation online (but then again, 1967 was eons ago in digital journal time). It also was not possible to locate any journal with exactly the title Library Science from this period.

I decided to search the catalog of the library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I used to work there years ago and I knew the collection was nearly exhaustive in information science. Also, UIUC is relatively nearby, so it would be possible to actually go there or send someone (or beg someone there) to look at the source if necessary. What I found in their online catalog was a journal called Library Science With a Slant to Documentation, published in India by SRELS (Sarada Ranganathan Endowment for Library Science) beginning in 1964 and ending in 1999, all of which seemed promising. However, I could not find a digitized copy of this journal anywhere by searching online. Volume 4 was dated 1967, but there was no explanation for the odd series statement, and there was no way to find a table of contents for the journal online. (I thought briefly of those halcyon days when long tables full of bound periodical indexes were at my fingertips, with citations stretching back more than a century; and the closed stacks of bound volumes were just through that little door over there ….)

I decided to turn to our ISKO colleagues by placing a notice on ISKO-L. Within a few hours I had several responses from around the world, acknowledging that we had found the correct title, and apparently the citation had employed a formerly standard title abbreviation. Paper copies of the journal were located. And even more oddly, European colleagues were able to find the digitized article online using Google. Now, why couldn’t we do that from the U.S.? I also heard from others in the U.S. who couldn’t find it online! How bizarre!

The next mystery arising concerned the phrase “library and information science,” because several people pointed out that Ranganathan would not have used that expression. Eventually a copy of the article was received from Kothi Raghavan; I’ll reproduce the first page here:

SRR_Paper_Page_01

Sure enough, there is a series statement in parentheses within the title, and the title does not say “and information science” and the journal title is Library Science With a Slant to Documentation.

The upshot is there were at least three inaccuracies in the original citation, so it was good thing we chased it down rather than creating a bibliographic ghost by publishing it in erroneous form. But it also was a lesson in the pitfalls of relying too heavily only on our digitized sources. As I tell my doctoral students, who inevitably groan and refuse to believe me, a scholar has to look at the actual sources to verify their veracity.

The mystery was resolved and the correct citation appeared in Knowledge Organization. Thanks to Kathryn La Barre, Gerhard Riesthuis, Thomas Dousa, Vivien Petras, Joe Tennis, F.J. Devadason and Kothi Raghavan for helping resolve this little mystery.

And remember, apparently, caveat emptor applies to citations.

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Posted July 13, 2014 by lazykoblog in journals

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