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The origin of a phantom reference

“The Art of Writing a Scientific Article,” published in the Journal of Science Communications, has received almost 400 citations in articles indexed in the Web of Science database. The citations are real, but the article is fictitious and the journal that supposedly published it does not exist.

The confusion arises from an authors’ guide written by publisher Elsevier, who created the fictitious reference as a template to demonstrate the format and style to be followed in its periodicals. “Obviously, authors should replace the template text with a real reference,” Anne-Wil Harzing, a professor at Middlesex University, London, wrote on her blog. What has happened, she says, is that this was not understood by inexperienced authors or those with a poor grasp of English. She acknowledges that some people may have simply forgotten to delete the template text after completing the list of references.

According to Harzing, the phantom reference was discovered by Pieter Kroonenberg, a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He recognized the name of a colleague, psychologist J. Van der Geer, as one of the authors. He was intrigued, having never known of his friend’s interest in the field of scientific writing, but he soon realized something was amiss: as well as not being able to find the article, he noticed that it was also the only manuscript ever published by the second author of the paper, J. Hanraads, which would be very strange for someone willing to teach the art of writing a scientific paper.