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Thread: Re "private communication", "in prep.", etc: can this be science?

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Feb 2010

    Re "private communication", "in prep.", etc: can this be science?

    You've all seen these, in published scientific papers, right?

    "[..] an informal study of Snapshot Serengeti (Lynn, private communication) reveals that [...]", "The authors have since collected thousands of citizen-generated models for a sample of a large number SDSS merging systems (Holincheck et al, in preparation, Figure 4)." [1]

    On the one hand, the inclusion of these sorts of things seems to violate a basic principle in science, that evidence must be objective and independently verifiable ; on the other hand, you can't sit on a draft paper and publish it only when all the "in prep."s have turned into published papers, otherwise you'd never publish anything.

    Of course, science as practiced is somewhat different from science as advertised; outsiders (amateurs, citizen scientists) face barriers which insiders have overcome (by getting their PhDs, for example, or jobs in universities) [2]; insiders - including reviewers - know that if Marshall writes "Holincheck et al, in preparation", the Holincheck et al paper is almost certainly in the works, but no insider would accept such a thing written in a draft paper by an outsider, right? And so on.

    Does anyone (insider) ever bother to check? For example, this time next year, is anyone going to go through Marshall+ (2015) and write a list of the references (now published papers) that correspond to the eight (I think) "in prep."s in it? Will someone in ADS do that, so that when you click on the link "References in the Article" you'll get all eight papers (as well as the other ~100 references)?

    And what if an "in prep." does not end up being published? In some cases I would imagine that the logical chain for some 'established science' will be broken. Or does this never happen?

    But what about "private communication"?

    [1] (my bold) These are from Marshall+ (2015) - the revised version; see the Ideas for Citizen Science in Astronomy - hot off the arXiv press thread for details. Why take examples from this paper? Because it's one I have to hand, and have spent a lot of time reading. I do not know how typical it is.
    [2] See Why is there essentially zero work being done by Citizen Scientists (amateurs)? for a discussion on this
    Last edited by Jean Tate; 2014-Oct-31 at 11:44 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Bend, Oregon
    Quote Originally Posted by Jean Tate View Post
    But what about "private communication"?
    Perhaps a peer reviewer could just communicate with the source themselves, if possible.

    I would think that 'private communication' references would be mostly for non-critical inputs to the paper. Maybe not. In your example, it's for an informal study.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2005
    I think there is a well-known geophysics paper that is often cited that somehow never got around to being published. I think it was Comer and Clayton, but there may have been an even more widely-cited one.

    Often times, PhD dissertations are cited, but are unpublished. They're still in the public record.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    The beautiful north coast (Ohio)
    In the literature I look at routinely (chemistry, ceramics, and catalysis journals), "private communication" is a very rare reference.

    "In prep" is also becoming pretty rare. More commonly I see digital variations, such as digital pre-preprints. I haven't tracked, but those usually seem to get published, though now some are only published digitally. In fact, sometimes they confuse me - I'll see a published paper that looks vaguely familiar, and when I check I find I've already looked at the digital version, often months before.

    Back in "the day", "in prep" was usually from graduate students, and would be part of that group of 2, 3, or 4 papers that everyone would push out at the end of their graduate work. Of ones I checked up on, they usually did get published eventually.
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  5. #5
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Not going to quote (the thread's short and the posts likewise, so far) ...

    @geonuc: perhaps the reviewers could communicate with the person being (privately) referenced; perhaps they already know a paper is in the works (perhaps they are a co-author of such a paper!); etc. it's not like anyone else can confirm ... Also, since when did informal surveys become science? How do they differ - in an objective, independently verifiable way - from someone's write-up of an evening at the pub with a bunch of colleagues?

    @grapes: yes, and I think I may have a similar (contemporary) example, in astronomy (stay tuned ). On PhD theses: as an author, you wouldn't refer to them as "private communication" would you? Much less "in prep."

    @Swift: in Marshall+ (2014), there is a distinction between a (public) digital preprint and an "in prep."; the former are listed in the references, but the latter not. This seems to conform to MNRAS' Instructions to Authors (to take a leading astronomy journal as an example; formatting is a bit askew):

    The styles for journal articles, conference proceedings, textbooks and PhD theses are illustrated by the following examples:

    Eke V., Cole S., Frenk C.S., 1996, MNRAS, 282, 263
    Smith A., 2000, in Minh Y.C., van Dishoeck E.F., eds, Proc. IAU Symp. 197, Astrochemistry: from Molecular Clouds to Planetary Systems. Astron. Soc. Pac., San Francisco, p. 210
    Felsteiner J., Opher R., 1991, in Treves A., ed., Iron Line Diagnostics in X-ray Sources. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, p. 209
    Garrido R., 2000, in Brege M., Montgomery M.H., eds, ASP Conf. Ser. Vol. 210, Delta Scuti and Related Stars. Astron. Soc. Pac., San Francisco, p. 67
    Jones P., Taylor N., 2013, MNRAS, in press
    Peebles P. J. E., 1980, The Large-Scale Structure of the Universe. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ
    Pounds K. A. et al., 1993, MNRAS, 260, 77
    Smith P. et al., 2013, preprint (arXiv:0123.4567)
    Williams B. G., 1992, PhD thesis, Univ. Edinburgh

    Private communications or papers in preparation should be listed as such in the text, but omitted from the reference list, e.g. Smith (in preparation) shows that...
    This paper (preprint) I chose may be interesting in another way; it is for submission (now submitted) to ARAA, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Perhaps, by the time it's actually published, all the "in prep."s will be published; perhaps, for a paper in ARAA it's quite OK to have lots of "in prep."s - a review includes capturing what's 'in the pipeline' as well as what's already through it - or perhaps it should be heavily frowned upon - a review should capture only what's been produced, not what's being planned.

    I guess it's one of those 'community polices itself' things; if an author started padding her papers with lots of "in prep."s (especially if many were fictitious), if other authors discovered they could not (much later) find the published paper which was an "in prep.", if conscientious reviewers started to see unhealthy trends, ... then words might be had, contracts might not get renewed, heads might even roll.

    Here's a left-field idea: maybe outsiders (citizen scientists, say) might monitor what goes on, and call attention to what they see as behavior inconsistent with science?

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    I think you are right that it depends a bit on the nature of the article-- a review article may wish to be as current as possible, since the worst fate of a review article is to become obsolete. On the other hand, if you are making some ground-breaking claim that is getting a buzz in the press, and you rely heavily on "private communications" or "in preparation" citations, that would clearly be a serious problem for people trying to weigh the validity of your claim, and could be considered to be shoddy science. So the author (and editor and referee) must all use their good judgement about how many such weak references, and in what contexts, get used. I agree with Swift that these are generally pretty rare, on balance.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Dec 2006
    Quote Originally Posted by Jean Tate View Post
    And what if an "in prep." does not end up being published? In some cases I would imagine that the logical chain for some 'established science' will be broken. Or does this never happen?
    This does happen. And it's aggravating to encounter when you're trying to track down certain numbers for your own research.

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