Incorrect or ambiguous citations can lead to ideas being distorted in subsequent publications via a process akin to Chinese Whispers, the process whereby a phrase or idea becomes distorted as it is passed from person to person. The propagation of incorrect ideas can have dangerous consequences for science as some ideas may be unfairly favoured because of the apparent supporting literature. Here we trace a specific example—the impacts of black rats Rattus rattus on Australian islands—and demonstrate how ambiguous or incorrect citations may lead to the development of distorted evidence for the mechanism behind rat impacts. This distortion has the potential to incorrectly influence conservation action, to overlook the need for further work or to induce action that is not necessarily justified. We highlight that authors, editors and publishers need to be vigilant with citation practices to ensure accuracy in reporting of scientific outcomes and we propose an approach to help ensure accuracy in citations.

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