Clark, D. (1999). Getting results with distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 12(1), 38-51.
At first I thought it was probably just a mistake which would easily be corrected by finding a good citation. However, when I began looking in the relevant databases and print indexes, I was surprised to find that it was not indexed anywhere. So, I began further investigation by looking at the bound journal. The first thing I noticed is the year and the volume did not match the citation, nor was the article title listed in the table of contents (I even looked at the earlier and later volumes to make sure I didn't miss the article.)
My next step was the obvious one: "Google it" I first chose Google Scholar... and guess what, the first hit was the citation (the same one I was using in my search.) So, I started scanning the rest of the results. All of the references were the same. One of the links even led me to the online version of the journal. At first, I was hopeful that I was going to find the article (or at least an abstract- proof that the article existed at least.) But, the citation was only in the list of references, and the online journal wouldn't let me search earlier than 2002 .
When I was beginning to think I was missing something, I came accross another citation in the list of Google Scholar results. This one had the same title and author, but rather than citing the journal, it said:
Clarke, D. (1999). Getting Results with Distance Education. University of California at Santa Cruz, Unpublished. Contact author at email@example.com; Work noted in The American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 12, No.1, 38-51.
So, the suggestion I offered the patron was to contact the author. But what I truly find amazing is when I looked through volume 12 (1), I found no reference to "Clarke, 1999" throughout the issue. I looked through the whole volume and volume 13 (which really is 1999.) The amazing thing is that people are citing work that they haven't even read, even citations that are obviously wrong, and others are perpetuating the mistake by not reading the articles they have listed in their list of references.
BTW, this exemplifies that even though Google Scholar is touted as the greatest thing "standing on the shoulder of giants", there isn't anyone at Google verifying the citations....only a spider, crawling out and bringing back results; wrong or right....