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Nature Genetics wants more context for citations, but doesn't notice that bad context comes from word limits

Nature Genetics has a remarkable editorial in the current issue that makes a point of criticizing citation practices by authors in “articles we have recently published”: “Neutral citation is poor scholarship”.

Neutral citation, for example, “this field exists (refs. 1–20),” may on the face of it seem to be a fair practice, giving evenhanded and minimal citation credit to a range of preexisting works as background to the current report. But it can also be malpractice, artificially inflating the metrics of irrelevant or trivially related works by including them in lists of relevant publications....

Those are tough words. The editors’ recommendation is to add more background that gives necessary context for cited works:

Best citation practice is to summarize the claim made in the cited work without distorting whether it was of cause, correlation or conjecture, much as you would for your own findings (Nat. Genet. 47, 305, 2015). The relevant reasons for citing pertinent publications should also be introduced early in the article rather than discussed as late afterthoughts. This best practice will often entail making statements that are strongly supported by prior publications in the background introducing your findings. We believe this is key to writing research papers with impact that can benefit from peer review, as it encourages explanation of the knowledge gap that motivates the research as well as clear explanation of the conceptual advances made by the main findings of the new research.

I’m strongly in favor of this approach. But take a look at the Instructions to Authors that lists the requirements for papers submitted to Nature Genetics:

The text is limited to 1500 words, excluding the introductory paragraph, online Methods, references and figure legends.
An Article is a substantial novel research study, with a complex story often involving several techniques or approaches. The main text (excluding abstract, online Methods, references and figure legends) is 2,000-4,000 words.

In a letter with only 30 references, giving appropriate context for each reference would take up 500 words – a third of the paper. For an article of 2000 words with 100 references, it would likewise take up 2/3 to half of the paper.

I agree that adding better context for citations would make better scientific papers. Adding more citations would in many cases improve papers. This is especially true in areas of science that lie on the boundaries of disciplines, where many readers will need more context to understand where citations fit together. But word limits and limits on citation number prevent authors from adding such context!

If Nature Genetics wants well-written and well-referenced papers, it is going to have to change its editorial practices to enable authors to spend the necessary words.

I especially like citation formats that enable authors to add context in the reference section—listing a short synopsis or reason why each citation is valuable. Books have that kind of facility in endnotes, so it’s a fairly widespread practice in scholarship. More scientific journals should enable greater context in references.