Two Papers, Two Authors, One Year, Same Result, But… – #365papers – 2017 – 48

#365papers for February 17, 2017

Bender, M.M., 1971, Variations in the 13C/12C ratios of plants in relation to the pathway of photosynthetic carbon dioxide fixation: Phytochemistry, v. 10, p. 1239-1244.

Smith, B.N. and Epstein, S., 1971, Two categories of 13C/12C ratios for higher plants: Plant Physiology: v. 47, p. 380-384.

Two papers, one topic.

What are these about?

Both of these papers are important first steps in our understanding of how stable isotopes can be used to understand plant physiology.

Why does it matter?

Understanding how physiological processes alter isotopic ratios helps us better understand how the chemical processes involved actually work. From these papers in 1971, we’ve taken this to where we can look at fossil tooth enamel and know what plants the animal was eating.

Why did I decide to read two nearly identical papers?

The Smith and Epstein paper is one that I had used before, having made reference to it in several publications regarding the isotopic distinction between C3 and C4 plants. The C3 and C4 refer to the two most common metabolic pathways.

While working on a different manuscript, I decided to dig a bit deeper to find a particular figure in a publication, one that showed the isotopic distrbution of C3 and C4 plants. I thought it was in the Smith and Epstein paper (it wasn’t). While I was digging around, I came upon the Bender paper. I had never seen it before.

The Bender paper has roughly the same number of data points as does the Smith and Epstein paper. It arrives at the same conclusions, and maybe actually does a little better by specifically assigning one isotopic grouping to C4 plants and the other to C3 plants. I plotted both Bender’s and Smith and Epstein’s data together below:

Red: Bender
Blue: Smith and Epstein

So now I was troubled. How could I have not known about the Bender paper? Some facts:

  • Both published the same year
  • Both completed in the United States
  • Both papers submitted in the fall of 1970
  • Both have very similar results and conclusions

I dug a little further and learned this:

  • Smith and Epstein has been cited 1245 times
  • Bender has been cited 443 times

I have known Smith and Epstein as an important seminal paper in geochemistry. Given that Bender’s paper is roughly equivalent in contribution, I have to wonder why it has only been cited 35% as often as Smith and Epstein.

I have to assume that some of it is because of a phenomenon that I fall prey to, and I know it happens to many others. I’ll call it ‘reference parroting.’ This is what happens when you read a paper, and go to its references to see what it has cited related to an important fact. Whatever you see there is the paper you look up and later cite in your own work without ever digging any deeper.

Probably some time soon after the two papers were published, the Smith and Epstein paper got a bit more coverage. This snowballed into the wide recognition that the paper gets today. Somehow, Bender’s paper didn’t get that much attention. I’m trying to think of reasons why that would be.

  • Maybe because her paper didn’t come out of CalTech?
  • Maybe because Plant Physiology is an American publication and Phytochemistry has European leanings?
  • Maybe because the title wasn’t as interesting?
  • Maybe because Bender is a woman?

I really don’t know. But it does remind me of the value of doing your research thoroughly – especially now when all this stuff is easy to search for and find on the Internet. It also reminds me that it is of the utmost importance that if you’re going to reference parrot, you need to at least read the paper your referencing, because sometimes it doesn’t say what you think it does.

What do you all think?


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