Allan Dafoe writes:
I just came across this article about academic urban legends spreading because of sloppy citation practices. I found it fascinating and relevant to the conversations on your blog.
The article is by Ole Bjørn Rekdal and it is indeed fascinating. It begins as follows:
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. . . .
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.
The story begins:
The following quote, including the reference, is taken from an article published by K. Sune Larsson in the Journal of Internal Medicine:
The myth from the 1930s that spinach is a rich source of iron was due to misleading information in the original publication: a malpositioned decimal point gave a 10-fold overestimate of iron content [Hamblin, 1981]. (Larsson, 1995: 448–449)
The quote caught my [Rekdal’s] attention for two reasons. First, it falsified an idea that I had carried with me since I was a child, that spinach is an excellent source of iron. The most striking thing, however, was that a single decimal point, misplaced 80 years ago, had affected not just myself and my now deceased parents, but also a large number of others in what we place on our table.
But you have to read Rekdal’s article for the full story. There are no bad guys here—no Weggy or Weick-style plagiarism. Rather, it’s a twisty tale indicating the challenges of conveying information that we hear about second- or third-hand.