Revolution in references: give readers a chance by putting page numbers

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Sir

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin observed that Malthus's doctrine applied to the animal and vegetable kingdoms. I am a lawyer who recently published a book that required me to analyse hundreds of scientific books (including Darwin's Origin), book chapters and articles. In nearly all, a citation to this fact would read this way: “Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray”. Unless readers sleuthed through the entire 490-page book, they would have had to take my word for what Darwin said. The problem was nearly as bad for citations to articles. Standard scientific notation does not appear to require page references for citations, though sometimes quotations get them.

I was surprised by this practice. Standard legal writing requires authors to provide the pages on which they rely for a proposition. It doesn't matter whether the source is a two-page letter or a thousand-page book. That way readers can easily locate the proposition cited.

I have spent hours, even days, sifting scientific articles and books for referenced material. Once I found a citation to a proposition so unusual and pertinent that I purchased the book and read the entire thing. When I failed to locate the cited proposition, I read the book again. Still unable to find it, I tracked down the author and begged her to give me the page numbers. With apologies, she admitted that what I sought was not in the book.

Before me is a book chapter I have written, to be published by a scientific press. When I turned it in to the publisher, I gave footnotes citing the pages at which every proposition upon which I relied could be found. I was informed that this is not good scientific notation. The publisher returned the chapter with instructions for me to go through each footnote and delete the offending references to the exact pages.

What is going on? A physicist friend says that some colleagues aim to outline their achievements while giving away as little as possible to competitors. A primatologist friend believes that scientific specialization is now so common that scientists write only for colleagues in their disciplines, who can be assumed to have read everything that the author has.

Perhaps scientists are simply too busy and trusting to cross-check their colleague's claims. But as a legal outsider peering into the scientific world, I appeal to the instinct of the scientist for precision and accuracy. Require, or at least permit, page references to cited material. And stop driving me crazy. (NB: the Malthus observation is found on page 63 of the first edition.)

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