17 March 2010

Don't Cite Works You Haven't Read

Taken from
Recursivity: Don't Cite Works You Haven't Read:

I couldn't agree more with what Shallit says below.

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

I have worked with co-authors who, when working on their version of a joint paper, they add citations to a number of papers I am not familiar with. This is fine, as long as they (i) have read the papers themselves and (ii) tell me what the papers are about, i.e. give me a summary. If they have not read a paper then I expect them to tell me why they think that the paper is relevant and agree on which of us should read it and explain to the other. If these conditions are not met, we end up with a paper which violates the rule: "none of the authors have read some of the papers cited". This is bad. We can't tell students not to violate this rule when, at the same time, we do it ourselves.

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.

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant