Published November 14, 2013

The judicial branch is my favorite arm of the government of the United States. OK, the judiciary isn’t as sexy as the lawgivers and warmongers, but at least it doesn’t hang up a “closed for business” sign when the justices are having a spat, and even the choleric Justice Thomas has the decency not to bomb anyone in his foul moods. Further, in contrast to some of the people in the other branches one might mention #cough# Joe Wilson #cough#, the members of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) wear their office with quiet dignity. And if they stage a constitutional coup from time to time, well, at least their website works.

Where does SCOTUS intersect with Evolution and Human Behavior? Recently (hat tip: Ray Hames who, I should add, I did not mean to imply was dead; he’s doing just fine), an article in Evolution and Human Behavior was cited in the context of a Supreme Court case. Kyle Gibson, the author of the piece in question, has a brief discussion of this on his blog. The case, Hollingsworth, et al. v. Perry, was about same-sex marriage, and the paper was cited in an amicus brief in support of the point that “adoption is good for children in need of permanent families.” So good for Kyle, homosexual couples, and children in need of permanent families. (Still, he added wistfully, nothing is truly forever ...)

Reading the amicus brief reminded me of the various peculiarities of writing for the law. I have been fortunate to collaborate with legal scholars a couple of times, and got a front row seat to view the publication process for a paper in a law review.

I thought I would take a few moments to explain how the publication process in legal scholarship ought to be a point of deepest shame for those of us publishing in the (social) scientific literature.

I’m not talking about the fact that their papers are typeset so that only 100 words or so appear on each page. I’m sure there’s some reason or tradition that explains why they have eight inch margins on either side and on the bottom of their pages, which I’m guessing probably has something to do with lawyers having equity positions in paper firms.

Instead, I’m talking about a practice in publishing for law reviews that we in the social sciences don’t have that, to me, makes a certain amount of sense.

They make sure citations are right.

Many readers might already be aware of this, but after a paper has been accepted to a law review, an excruciating process is set in motion that makes the excruciating process of dealing with the copy editors at our journals feel as effortless as signing up for federal health insurance. (OK, bad example ...) Intrepid law students, who work for the respective law reviews, meticulously—and I mean meticulously—pore over each sentence, word, and syllable of the submitted paper and ensure that each claim, no matter how small, is cited and, moreover, is properly cited. To give you a sense of the no-claim-is-too-pedestrian-to-cite mentality, in explaining the data we presented in our paper, I reminded the reader that correlation coefficients range between -1.0 and +1.0. The student editor called out this sentence with a request that I “supply a source for this claim.” (Note, speaking of accurate citations. I actually don’t recall if that’s an exact quote. Pretty close though.) Such diligence leads, it is true, to a tremendous amount of material “below the line,” occasionally to the point where the main text is dwarfed by the supporting documentation below it.

Further, authors are asked to provide quoted material from the cited source that supports the claim made in the text. Often but not always these quotations are left in the footnotes for the reader’s reference.

Impressive, right? Sounds right scholarly, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more.

When I was working on the papers for the law reviews, I learned the term “pin cite” or sometimes as one word, “pincite.” This term refers to the practice of telling the reader, for the source cited, what page the supporting ideas can be found on. This would seem to be a fairly good idea; as Wikipedia puts it, a pincite “gives helpful information about the cited authority to the reader.” It does indeed. How often do you see a citation in a journal to a book or other lengthy publication that you’re sure would take you hours to track down if you actually bothered to try to look for it? Pincites add a burden to authors to find the precise place where a claim supports the point their making, but eases the burden on the scholar consuming the work to backtrack through the literature. We provide page numbers for quotations, yes, but rarely for anything else.

It makes a certain amount of sense that the legal community has these exacting standards. After all, legal decisions are often based on prior legal decisions, and of course there is the powerful principle of precedent that permeates SCOTUS and other corners of the bench. Law, in some important sense, is supposed to be accretive, building on prior decisions, and present decisions should be able to be traced back to prior decisions, legislation and, in some cases, relevant data, such as findings regarding whether adoption is good for children in need of permanent families. (It is. See Kyle Gibson, Differential Parental Investment in Families with  Both Adopted and Genetic Children, 30 EVOL. &  HUM. BEHAV. 184, 187 (2009). That “187″ is the pincite, by the way.)

All of which would seem to be true of science as well. It’s not clear that sciences ought to be more accretive than the law, but surely we’re supposed to be building upon prior knowledge, and a reader’s ability to interpret the present findings depend at least sometimes on the prior findings on which the present data and arguments rest. Not only do we not provide page numbers in our citations, but many of us have had the experience of tracking back through a citation and finding that a source doesn’t really support the claim for which the author cites it. (Raise your hand if you have ... all of you ...? Oh ...)

A process such as that used at law reviews could go some way to ameliorating this way in which social scientific scholarship looks to be curably deficient. Why aren’t authors required to indicate the page or pages on which supporting information is to be found?

More importantly, why don’t armies of graduate students—or postdocs or whoever—pore over each and every citation in papers before publication to ensure that citations are accurate?

This is not, in fact, a rhetorical question. And, sure, there are barriers. Will the students be paid? If so, where will the money come from? If they won’t be paid, how will they be recognized or compensated? What tasks will not be done because graduate students are devoting time to checking the accuracy of citations?

These are important questions. Still ... Are we willing to say that the law requires greater care than science in documenting the connections to prior scholarship? Is it merely momentum (on our part) and tradition (on theirs) that explains the vast gulf in practices between the two fields?

Psychology is undergoing a number of transitions in the way that we do business, from statistics to replications to data archiving and more.

This is a good time to introduce innovations to try to make each paper more useful by ensuring that citations are both precise and accurate.

Now accepting proposals regarding how to proceed.