A killer reference

Last week I got a request from Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy to review the paper "Serial Killers Profiling and Target Victims: Is there a connection?" The article looked pretty banal until I got to chapter 2.1 where I read:

Biologically speaking, Heydari et al. (2008) observed the most common biological characteristics of serial killers and noted that they have distinctive features like; face asymmetry, irregular ears sizes, either standing out or very small, irregular nose shape, and protruding lips.

This was intriguing so I scrolled to the end of the article for the reference. It was:

Heydari, E., Arzani, N., & Hassanzadeh, J. (2008). Mantle plume: the invisible serial killer— application to the Permian–Triassic boundary mass extinction. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 264(1), 147-162.

From the very title it was obvious that the reference has nothing to do with real serial killers. The expression was a metaphor for a geological phenomenon that caused a mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

I found an online preprint of the article. The author is Mohammad B. Mustafa of Jumeira University in Dubai. According to his LinkedIn page he has a Doctor of Education degree from Wichita State University in Kansas.

I knew that researchers rarely read the papers they cite. But this one did not even read the title and the name of the journal. A simple internet search produced the paper Prof. Mustafa must have copied the citation from. It is "Serial Murder: An Exploration and Evaluation of Theories and Perspectives" by Ju-Lak Lee and Kwan Choi, published in 2014 in American International Journal of Contemporary Research. The relevant passage is:

Heydari et al. (2008) notes what Lombroso sees as distinctive criminal features: (a)Asymmetry of the face; (b) Unusual sized ears, sometimes standing out/small in size; (c) Unusual nose shape e.g. twisted / flattened. Murderers are noted to have a beak like nose (d) Protruding lips.

Prof. Ju-Lak Lee is from Kyonggi University in South Korea and had published a couple dozen papers on crime and security in a variety of journals. Prof. Kwan Choi is from Hansei University in the same country and had published half a dozen papers on similar subjects.

I could not find where Profs. Lee and Choi had copied the citation from. Google Scholar lists 59 papers that cite Heydari et al. (2008). 58 of them are in the fields of geology and paleontology. The paper by Lee and Choi is the only exception.

Typical incorrect citations that propagate through copying are of the sort of misprints in page numbers. In such case it is easy to conceive how the original incorrect citation came about. But how was this killer reference born? Perhaps, it was someone's intentional prank.

Mikhail Simkin
January 25, 2018

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