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Citation frustration

17 December, 2009

No, this isn’t a rant about bean-counting or spurious self-citation… but you should read both of those anyway.

Instead, this is me bemoaning one thing that has bugged me on and off when trying to learn more about certain topics – and by learning, I don’t mean in the leisurely sense of broadening one’s mathematical background, but rather as a necessary precursor to finding and exploring avenues of research.

So: to those who make use in textbooks or survey articles or even their own research articles of big results “due to Connes” or “due to Dixmier” – could one of you at least take the time to untangle how the proofs actually work? Not in detail, but just to point out that statements along the lines of

the von Neumann algebra of an almost connected group is Connes-amenable, and this is due to Connes in his Annals paper classifying injective factors

are actually misleading? One might get the impression that people cite these things without looking at the original papers to see where the proof is given… (Hint: if Pukanszky doesn’t get mentioned, then the account is either inadvertently or willfully cutting corners.)

May expand on this particular peeve of mine – and a more general bugbear of mine, that the incentives in mathematics have drifted away from understanding and refining what we’ve proved, to shouty advertising and Toiling At The Coalface – if I can get my own notes organised. So probably not, then…

Edited 21-12-09: On rereading this bit of grumbling, I see that I may have given a misleading impression, or at least sinned against some W3C specification, with that “blockquote” above. It isn’t a genuine quote from anything, but rather my own version of what several sources have seemed to imply. Moreover, the result claimed is both true and non-trivial — but I think I’ll save further discussion for a separate post.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 December, 2009 5:09 pm

    This is an important point. And it is not unconnected with bean-counting, for two reasons.

    Firstly, these “automatic” references to big papers call into question the fairness of citations.

    Second and maybe worse, even when the papers are read by “experts”, nobody can be expert in everything, and a statement like the one you quote is likely to pass unchallenged as a sign of a “deep” paper whereas a clear explanation makes the whole thing look “trivial”.

    Once, when printing costs were high, journals encouraged that sort of brevity. Now in the electronic age there is no need for us to be slaves to that viewpoint any more. But we have to make a conscious effort to escape!

    • 21 December, 2009 10:12 pm

      Peter: thanks for the comment, and the thoughts. I think the first reason you give is a potential problem, although there is sometimes a difference in authorial style or culture about “giving priority” where it’s due. As a matter of purely personal taste, I try only to cite things which I actually need in my papers, or to point to a standard text which contains the background context and terminology.

      As for the second point you make: on rereading my post, I fear I may have misled readers, by giving the impression that the sample block of text I gave was a direct quote. It isn’t, and I’ll update the post to try and clarify this, while perhaps expanding a little on my reasons for irritation. (I have, however, read several similar passages in texts and articles, so my caricature isn’t completely baseless.)

      • 29 December, 2009 1:46 pm

        Whether or not the text was a literal quote, I think all of us have seen enough similar things that the point comes across clearly. I don’t think it would be hard to come up with a fistful of similar quotes.

  2. 14 March, 2010 4:23 pm

    Shorter clarification: “I am not aware of all internet traditions.”

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