Some personal notes about ‘ageism’ in scientific citing

Imagine that someone stated that you shouldn’t look at paintings that were painted before 2000 or that you shouldn’t listen to anything recorded in the previous millennium? You would probably smile and wouldn’t see the point. Still, it’s something I’ve heard several times when it comes to references in scientific papers. My personal experiences while writing on our two Urban Myths books – and while working a secret new project – shows that this is as big a mistake as not quoting any recent studies.

Maybe you’d think that old insights are wrong. Could well be the case, e.g. a big part of the theories by Piaget have been debunked, but this isn’t a rule set in stone. Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve from 1885 was replicated successfully in 2015. It would be a mistake to only cite the replication. Some of the stuff Thorndike wrote in 1901 and 1923 is really mind-blowing and still very relevant.  And no, only using newer, more recent insights won’t guarantee you that they are correct, e.g. what happened recently to claims about grit or growth mindset, (do take notes, Jo Boaler).

Strangely, there are some older articles that everybody seems to be allowed to cite, but without actually reading them. It isn’t hard to tell if somebody has read the works by Bloom or Maslow, or cared to check e.g. the actual Pygmalion in the Classroom study. In the first two cases: if they use a pyramid shape, there is a big chance that they didn’t read the original authors. For Pygmalion, just check the original study

But hasn’t the world changed a lot? This is an important question. E.g. in more recent research on Erikson’s theory on identity researchers have found that what Erikson described as an identity crisis happening in early adolescence, is now still taking place as he described, with the difference being that on average the adolescents are nowadays older. Is this because Erikson made a mistake decades ago, or rather because the world has changed? Difficult to tell, but probably the latter. Again I think it’s worth reading and citing both the old research and the present research. More on this later when that new project is finished.

I’ve experienced that a lot of present-day thinking about science seems to be all about how to move forward, but as Isaac Newton once wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke ” If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.” But do know, that he himself didn’t invent this quote, as it can be traced back to e.g. Bernard of Chartres centuries earlier. (Check Wikipedia)


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