Saturday, March 13, 2010

Don't Cite Works You Haven't Read

It's something you teach your graduate students: Don't cite works you haven't read.

It's a rule with good reasons behind it. First, it's a bad idea to rely on someone else's summary of another work. Maybe they summarized it incorrectly, or maybe there is more there you need to consider. Second, as a scholar, it's your obligation not to spread misinformation. Maybe the page numbers or the volume are given incorrectly.

Like all rules, there are occasional exceptions. Maybe it's a really old and obscure work that you've tried to get a copy of, but failed. In that case, you can cite the work but mention that you haven't actually been able to find a copy. (I've done this.) That way, at the least the reader will be warned that you're relying on someone else's citation.

And now, from Paris, comes a spectacular case of why citing works you haven't read is a bad idea. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévi has been caught citing and praising, in his new book De la guerre en philosophie, the work of the philosopher "Jean-Baptiste Botul". Only problem? Botul doesn't actually exist. He is the creation of journalist Frédéric Pagès.

Now, maybe Lévy did actually read Botul's book La vie sexuelle d'Emmanuel Kant. But if so, despite the big warning signs (Botul's school is called "Botulism") he failed to recognize it as a big joke, which raises even more questions about his perspicacity.

Maybe I need to tell my graduate students another rule: Don't cite works that you suspect may be a hoax.

Oh, and for the record? I haven't read Lévi's new book, nor Pagès's satire.


Anonymous said...

If I'm relying on someone else's citation, I like to say whose citation I'm relying on by adding "As cited by [foo]." to the end of the citation of the unread item.

As well as not being able to find the original, another reason for citing unread works is when I can't read the original because it's in a language I don't know — in that case I'm still likely to want to include a citation crediting the original source of some idea.

Miranda said...

The DI claims that Francisco Ayala didn't read Stephen Meyer's book before he reviewed it. Unlike you.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I don't get your point, Miranda.

I've read Meyer's book, and I took copious notes on it.

Judging from Ayala's review, he read it, too. If he didn't, he's guilty of the sin I described. But I see no evidence of this.

Why would you ever rely on anything the DI says?

Miranda said...

"I've read Meyer's book, and I took copious notes on it."

Yes, that's what I said.

(Ayala should've gotten the name of the book right.)

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Give the guy a bit of a break, he's 76.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

A French philosopher has done this. Why am I not surprised?

Diogenes said...

This just in: David Berlinski says Jean-Baptiste Botul didn't believe in evolution. "He laughed at it, [rolls eyes] hooted at it," says Berlinski.

Unfortunately, there is no record in any of Botul's written works indicating skepticism of evolution.

Not a problem, says Berlinski. Dr. Berlinski got the information "straight from the horse's mouth."

Berlinski heard Botul say he didn't believe in evolution at a nightclub in Cap D'Antibes. They were enjoying a lovely dinner with Napoleon IV, Baron Munchausen and the Snuffleupagus.

Pseudonym said...

I think that in the field of computer science, the most-cited-yet-least-read reference would have to be The Psychobiology of Language by George Zipf.

Any other candidates?

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Thanks very much for providing me with arguments against this awful habit.

As for the comment that Ayala didn't read Meyer's (creationistic) book, because, for example, he misquoted the tile ("Signature of the Cell" instead of "Signature in the Cell"), why is this relevant? Actually, the fact that it is the Discovery Institute people who said so immediately sheds doubts on the validity of the comment. The Discovery Institute produces fraudulent comments all the time.

Miranda said...

Takis, it was written in Ayala's own article.

I suppose you could've learned that for yourself had you tried.

Miranda said...

Eh, Takis, I just realize that you were giving the misquoted title as an example of not having read the book, not as the main issue of your post. So, scratch my last comment.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...


No thanks, I don't care to try. I already know that the so-called Discovery Institute is full of idiots.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

B-H Levy is the pimp of philosophy: