Once you post something to the Internet, it’s there for the world to find and do with as it sees fit. This often results in your work being referenced in contexts where it (in your opinion) really doesn’t belong. In particular, students and academic enthusiasts are often unable to discern expert research from amateur writeups, especially if the latter are well-typeset. Other times, though, you may be surprised at the reach and value of your old work. In most cases, you, the author, have no way of knowing what happens to your digital work once you release it to the world. Search engines, on the other hand, can see how the web links together and can identify other sites that reference your online content.

Google’s Webmaster Tools provide website creators with this backlink information, and the results can be amusing to say the least. While the majority of referencing sites are likely content aggregators, there may be some proper citations in there as well. Here are some of the contexts that documents on my old Research page (mostly writeups of undergraduate assignments) have been cited in:

  • A Scientific American blog on quantum entanglement linked to an undergraduate lab report I wrote on the angular correlation of gamma rays when describing how the coincidence rate of sodium-22 emissions should depend on angle. I suppose the link is relevant, even if none of the theoretical results are my own.

  • A pair of University of Minnesota students performed the same experiment described in the above report and cited my document five times in their online writeup, even borrowing a figure from it (a figure that I probably reconstructed from a lab manual in the first place). My work is referred to as a “previous study,” which I suppose is not inaccurate. One reason my report may have been cited over more authoritative works is the fact that my own citations are insufficient – information from my lab manual was presented without mentioning the source, preventing future readers from finding the true origin of those facts.

  • The Dutch Wikipedia page on Dsungaripteroidea (a clade of pterosaurs) cites an undergraduate report I wrote for an honors seminar alongside the publications of David M. Unwin, the expert in this field. While I did put a great deal of effort in that project, the report itself was mostly written the night before it was due, with my interpretation of the results coming as an epiphany around 2 AM. My knowledge of fossils and cladistics was that of a 22-year-old physics student, yet links to this document show up in several online paleontology communities.

It’s humbling to see that my old class projects have actually informed (or misinformed) interested readers around the world. I wonder what reach my future writings on this site will have…