Spotting Bad Fitness Articles: Reference Padding

Posted on 30 Apr 2010 17:09

Reference padding is the practice of "padding" the source list of an article with many more citations than should be necessary given the information or ideas presented.

An extreme example may be an article which is around 5000 words long (pretty short to me) but which lists around 100 references. Although possible, it is unlikely that such a high number of sources were used to research such an article and it is especially blatant when the article is not a "research" article at all.

Most fitness articles present one central idea and attempt to back up that idea. A research article, on the other hand, maybe presenting a great deal of data on a given subject.

The majority of references in fitness articles with long reference lists tend to be unrelated or only loosely related to the article. Many times the author is actually unable to back up his or her conclusions because there simply is NOT any real data on the subject. But instead of abandoning the idea the author simply pads the reference list with anything and everything that could possibly correlate.

So, if I wanted to make a statement about protein ingestion but was unable to find real research relating to my idea I might list 50 or 75 Pubmed references that have something to do with protein! The more references you list the less likely the average reader will be to check them. Don't be the average reader.

Deliberate reference padding is the true bad practice here and it will tend to involve many references that do not truly back up the article. However, some reference padding may be more innocent since inexperienced writers often think they must use many sources for the same information or information subcategory.

Perhaps I am looking for information pertaining to the force-velocity relationship of human skeletal muscle. One or two good sources should give me the information I need for a basic article on the subject since I just want to give a nice explanation. But even though two sources provide enough for me to explain the force-velocity relationship I feel that the article would not be credible if I only use two sources. So I seek out many other sources which basically provide the same information and list them as well. This is misleading to the readers and yes, it is dishonest since I am attempting to make the reader think that I used a great quantity of sources when in fact I only used two and then "confirmed" them with other sources. But it's a lack of confidence that caused me to do it rather than a desire to mislead the reader. My explanation can still be sound as far as the state of knowledge on the subject goes.

If you've ever read a fitness or strength training article with a vast source list at the end which left you scratching your head thinking "wow, they read all that stuff?" you've probably encountered the more dishonest brand of reference padding. When an article requires a great many sources to write, the article itself will tend to make that need obvious. If you find the quantity of references surprising, then you are probably picking up on the incongruity between content and source list.

Of course there are scientific articles that require a great many sources to back them up. The content of these articles will usually make it clear that so many sources are appropriate. In addition, most of these types of articles use a footnote style of reference where a number will appear after a passage that corresponds to a particular reference.1

I personally consider reference padding a pretty big sin. If you come across this then check those references! Chances are most of them are fake and have very little to nothing to do with the article. They may be taken out of context or deliberately misquoted. Also, some of the data from the references may have been ignored in favor of data supporting the authors conclusions. Often, in the case of scientific studies, we find the conclusions of the study author(s) themselves being ignored!

There are many related practices having to do with references but this is a primary "tool" in the realm of formal article writing. We shouldn't expect someone to cite accurate references every time they post something on the internet but it they DO cite references then those references should be accurate.

The No Reference Reference

One other bad practice that tends to happen more on the magazine and "news" sites is referencing a "study" on a fitness or health related topic without giving enough particulars on the study that the reader can check it.

"A study performed by Mr. Uneverherdofim at Wassa Matta U found that humans are more likely to believe me if I talk about "studies."

If a research paper is recent then you can bet that a link can be provided to at least the abstract but failing that a full journal reference should be given. If it doesn't appear in a peer-reviewed journal…sorry, it's not a real "study".

1. Example of reference

This page created 30 Apr 2010 17:09
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 04:41

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