Quoting from abstracts

With the paucity of discussions here, I was forced to seek entertainment elsewhere, and found this paper on hagfish at Evolution News.

One particular comment caught my eye:

For a long time the poor state of knowledge on hagfish embryology represented a significant obstacle for evolutionary biologists (Ota & Kuratani 2006, Kuratani & Ota 2008), but finally new data “revealed that some apparently primitive morphological traits can be regarded as artifacts deriving mainly from fixation conditions” (Ota & Kuratani 2008). Oops!

Intrigued by the “Oops!”, not fully understanding the term “fixation conditions”, and not trusting the author much, I looked up the original to find out more. I was surprised (and disappointed) to find that the quotation came from the paper’s abstract, and the full text was unavailable.

Another sentence further down also didn’t seem right:

Because of their numerous assumed primitive traits, lampreys have generally be considered to be an “evo-devo model” (Kuratani et al. 2002)

so I looked that one up to, and found the quote (i) didn’t justify the author’s comment on it, and (ii) came from the paper’s title.

Now I know that IDers and creationists frequently copy ‘quotes’ from each other without bothering to read the original source material, but that seemed unlikely to be that case here since the references were on a highly specific subject - and there were a lot of them. So many that it would have taken considerable effort to read them all. But these two came from the title and abstract. Had all these papers been read?

So I checked the first 30 quotes included.[1]

Of these 30:

  • 16 were from abstracts or synopses[2]
  • 2 were from titles
  • 2 were from the statement of significance
  • 2 were from conclusions given provided with the abstract
  • 1 was from a list of highlights
  • 1 was from a chapter introduction
  • 1 was from the headline of a press release about the paper, not from the paper itself.

That’s 83% that could have been obtained without even looking at the referenced paper. One of the links provided was to a page where everything but the paper’s title and author was written in Chinese script[3], suggesting that that paper for one had not been read.

Of the remaining five quotes, three were taken from the body of the referenced paper, though one of those was from the first page and another consisted of ellipsis-separated fragments. A fourth may have been, but I could only access the abstract so could not confirm. The final quote was from a 1946 paper for which only an extract was available, and Google gave only one hit for the quote - Evolution News.

The author concludes by saying that hagfish and lamprey history is better explained by intelligent design, without of course giving that explanation - they don’t specify what was designed, when it was designed, how it was designed or by whom. My conclusion is somewhat different, and doesn’t relate to hagfishes at all.

Back when I was writing research papers, I would have been heavily chastised for citing something of which I had only read the abstract, and excoriated for referring only to the title. Have things changed?

P.S. Many of the ‘quotes’ were presented with ellipses, or with changes to capitalisation or punctuation - but that’s another topic.

  1. There were more, but the pattern was clear, and I was getting bored. ↩︎

  2. One of these was a series of four separate quotes from the same paper, all of which were from the paper’s abstract. ↩︎

  3. This one: "… a “model for vertebrate evolutionary research” (Xu et al. 2016) ↩︎


Günter Bechly was once a real scientist and published real papers in real journals. Very sad.


That’s a lot of pressure to put on the rest of us: either we get some good discussion going, or our friends will slump into self-harm. :grimacing: I don’t read that site and each time I visit (I didn’t this time, and thus earned a snack :cookie:) it is more pitiful than before.

The topic here seems to be how to appropriately cite the literature, and I think most/all scholars will agree with me that it is inappropriate – close to misconduct – to cite a work without reading it. Far worse is to mis-cite something, e.g. by pulling text out of context or editing it to alter meaning. I don’t know whether the author has done this.

But in defense of the author here, some of the odd-looking cites mentioned by @Roy are not IMO likely to be inappropriate. For example:

I looked up the paper (it’s paywalled so I would only be able to read after a visit to the library) but I think the author is correct in their claim about lampreys and I think they cited that paper as an early (perhaps the first) claim that lampreys could be or should be an evo-devo model system. If you go to Dimensions and check out the papers cited by that article, and the papers that have cited it, you can see that the author is probably right about lampreys as a “model system” and you might agree with me that it was appropriate to cite that 2002 paper as a kind of first claim about that.

You provided the link that the author used, to the original paper in Chinese. But it’s likely that our author did read the paper, because you can find it on PubMed Central PMC, full text. My guess is that the author read it there (and found it there, since PubMed should still be the go-to first source for published biology), then chose to cite the original source (which is linked via a DOI at the PMC page). I would actually praise the author for doing this, but a better practice would have been to include the PMC link alongside the DOI to the Chinese-language journal.

It’s clear that the author misled the audience regardless of whether they read every character of every paper they cited. And it is fully expected that the “Evolution News” site will contain quotemining and other propagandistic practices. Citing an abstract (or bulleted highlights, or just the title) of a paper you haven’t read is indeed malpractice. But not all of your examples are of that type, and maybe we should find that a tiny bit encouraging?

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I covered this in 2022.

My favorite example is from the “Dismantled” let’s-call-it-a-documentary, where they pluck out the first line of an abstract but show the whole thing on screen, and if you pause, the bottom part refutes the line they read out loud.


Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s important to note that nothing posted by @Roy, quoting the “Evolution News” site, indicates that kind of malpractice.

I don’t think it’s close to misconduct, it simply is misconduct.

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I might, but I might also quibble that if you want a cite that somethings “have generally be considered” something, I’d either cite something that shows that history of consideration, or say “since [cite]”. Otherwise it’s a bit like saying

Airplanes have generally be considered an effective and safe means of transport (Root 1905)[1]

or even

Dirigibles have generally be considered an effective and safe means of transport (MIller 1936)[2]

But as I said, it’s a quibble.

Yes, I found the other version too. I know ID writers don’t expect their readers to check the references they cite, but that’s no reason to make it harder.

As @John_Harshman noted, this may be backsliding.

  1. A I Root, Gleanings in bee culture, Jan 1905. ↩︎

  2. W Miller, I found no peace, 1936 ↩︎

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