Academic urban legends

Many of the messages presented in respectable scientific publications are, in fact, based on various forms of rumors. Some of these rumors appear so frequently, and in such complex, colorful, and entertaining ways that we can think of them as academic urban legends. The explanation for this phenomenon is usually that authors have lazily, sloppily, or fraudulently employed sources, and peer reviewers and editors have not discovered these weaknesses in the manuscripts during evaluation. To illustrate this phenomenon, I draw upon a remarkable case in which a decimal point error appears to have misled millions into believing that spinach is a good nutritional source of iron. Through this example, I demonstrate how an academic urban legend can be conceived and born, and can continue to grow and reproduce within academia and beyond.


As a little addition to the point about citations, it might not be that scientists haven't read a certain article and so checked references/contents etc but rather they did read it but just copied the reference from someone else when creating their own articles bibliography.
One of my scientists wanted to re-read the original article in Nature of something that was a core tenent of his field. He had of course read it in the past at university but wanted to go through it again. He gave me the reference and I went to track it down. The reference was incorrect. Volume was correct but issue and page number were incorrect. I found the correct details with a simple search on the Nature site. But I then looked at the reference given on Web of Science and saw that the incorrect reference had been copied by scientists over and over again for well over 10 years. And noone had noticed.

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