cite it right

A couple of weeks ago I noticed on my twitter feed someone – let’s call them Tweeter A – being advised by Tweeter B to ‘check out the original’. The original happened to be a writing strategy taken from Barbara’s and my recent book about publishing. It turned out that Tweeter B had used our writing strategy and acknowledged the source in a presentation on academic writing. However Tweeter A, a doctoral researcher, had attributed the strategy to Tweeter B, because that’s where they’d first heard it. So Tweeter B steered the doctoral researcher to the source of the workshop material. At the same time, Tweeter B was also providing a lesson in ‘citing it right’.

And a while ago I also noticed that one blogger, let’s call them Blogger A, had written a post in which they referred to one of the metaphors Barbara and I use as a strategy to get to grips with literature work. It was acknowledged appropriately and the post linked to our first book. That was great and we were duly pleased – that’s why we write the books, to get the stuff out there and used. (Heaven knows we don’t make any money out of writing them – if only.) But then I spotted only this week a post by Blogger B. Blogger B had referred to our metaphor and attributed it to Blogger A, and not to us.

In both instances the problem was the same. Tweeter A and Blogger B had committed what is known as a MISATTRIBUTION.

A misattribution arises when you attribute something to the wrong person. It often occurs when you are CITING A CITATION.

Misattribution is often a problem in theses and journal articles. Let me give you a couple of examples. A writer might attribute an idea like ‘emotional labour’ to a recent article that they’ve read on service workers. However the article’s author has actually read the primary material, and attributed the general ideas of ‘emotional labour’ and ‘greedy institutions’ to Hochschild (Hochschild, 1983) and Coser (Coser, 1974). The writer in question however only cited the citation, and not the original source.

Mis-citing citations is particularly obvious when the idea is really really well known – say when someone attributes the idea of ‘the Panopticon’ and the ‘surveillance’ of modern life to a recent text in which someone is citing and working with Foucault (Foucault, 1977). (Of course Foucault was himself using the work of Bentham and if it is only the Panopticon that is discussed then the citation really ought to go back to that primary source.) Failing to recognize that panoptic surveillance is a very well known theory which emanates from Foucault actually says a lot about the writer who is misattributing. It suggests that they are not very well read.

Misattribution is actually pretty common, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours.

The originator of the material misses out having their contribution recognized. In these times when citations count, this can be a serious issue. Misattribution can cost the scholar who isn’t cited. So in an audit context, an omission via a misattribution could well constitute what Thesis Whisperer might suggest is academic asshole behaviour.

The person who cited correctly has been misread by the misattributor. They are credited with an idea that is not their’s and that it was not their intention to steal – which is what the misattribution could be seen to imply if the reader of the misattributor’s text doesn’t go back to the secondary source to see where the chain of misattribution starts.

However, the most serious consequences come to the person who doesn’t cite it right. Readers who know the correct attribution will assume that the misattributor is either just being lazy and can’t be bothered to go back to the primary source – or they haven’t actually read the material they are citing properly. Whichever of these is assumed by their reader, the misattribution will be put down to sloppy scholarship, and that then throws the rest of the misattributor’s work into doubt.

Sometimes, of course, the misattribution is just a simple and unintended oversight, and a simple email to ask that it be fixed is sufficient. That’s what happened with me and Blogger B. I emailed, pointed out the slip and they fixed it. So that’s the other thing about at least some misattributions, particularly in social media, they can be rectified without much trouble.

But there IS a lot at stake in attribution. The message therefore is – cite it right!! Attributing to the primary source is not just about doing the right thing as in the correct thing to do, it’s also about doing the ethical thing by acknowledging the contribution that was originally made.

Coser, L. A. (1974). Greedy institutions. Patterns of undivided commitment. New York: The Free Press.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans. 1991 ed.). London: Penguin.
Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialisation of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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17 Responses to cite it right

  1. Yvonne Salt says:

    Great post. I often see this and wonder why the author hasn’t bothered to find out who said what. I can’t understand though, why you haven’t cited Bentham, particularly in the context of the paragraph – if you only mention the Panopticon, which you do, then it should go back to the original source…


  2. Adam says:

    I think social media (and Twitter in particular) may be leading to a custom of acknowledging both the original “creator” of the resource and the “curator” who brought it to wider attention. Facebook allows users to share something that a friend has shared with them and acknowledge the source, and Twitter has the custom of the “hat tip” (h/t). I think there’s certainly a sense in which the curator of a resource might deserve some credit and recognition, though clearly not ahead of the creator. This all seems right and proper, and is presumably the consequence of the explosion of content and the challenges of finding quality stuff – whether it’s an amusing cartoon, a particular cute cat video, a particular searing op-ed piece, or a blog post by an actual expert that sheds new light on a current controversy.

    Obviously this shouldn’t seep into academic practice – grateful though I am to my A Level Politics teacher, I don’t feel the need to acknowledge his role in bringing the concept of the Panopticon to my attention!


  3. Charles says:

    Great post! What if for some reason beyond one’s control, you don’t have access to the primary author’s article/book and this information is really important and forms the backbone of my research, how do I go about citing based on the data I have from the secondary author?


  4. kahanji says:

    Great post! What if for some reason beyond one’s control, you don’t have access to the primary author’s article/book and this information is really important and forms the backbone of my research, how do I go about citing based on the data I have from the secondary author?


    • pat thomson says:

      This is fine and you should just do the (x date in y date). I’ll write more about this in a post next week, but basically if the original is unavailable there’s not problem in citing a citation.


  5. lindathestar says:

    I had a supervisor who insisted I used the most recent reference to whatever the idea was, because for her the currency was what was most important. As a journal editor she would reject papers on the basis of the age of their citations, without checking their relevance. This can lead to not ‘citing it right’. Having the latest sources is important in academia, yet if ideas have been around for a while, and those ideas are useful ones to discuss, then the race to have the latest can overshadow honesty in attributions and citations. There is not always the word count or relevance to explore how x (recent date) used y (older date) or be critical, so using and citing primary sources should take precedence over naming the most recent publication to refer to a concept. Putting aside what is ‘seminal’ sometimes the most recent example is not the best example. Pat, your blog is helpful to me and I appreciate the way you encourage me to think deeply about how I write and be honest in how I use evidence. I’m a qualitative researcher, and take very seriously how I report my findings so my participants’ contributions are represented accurately, but admit to being tempted in lit reviews to cite something plausible without the same depth of honesty or accuracy that you encourage in this post. I will resist this temptation harder now! Academics, especially casual tutors, do not have the time (paid or unpaid) to be rigorous as they should when checking student reference lists, so bad habits can be begun early. I certainly want my publications accurately represented, and everyone else deserves the same courtesy.


  6. maelorin says:

    I have spent so many hours tracking back, and tracking down, original references. So many.

    Citing the citation is all too common, and not a new phenomenon – I’ve found an example in a paper published in the late 1800s.

    There are legitimate referencing styles for citing a citation; sometimes you just can’t find a copy of the original text (to date, I’ve had no luck getting hold of a copy of Sir Zelman Cowen’s 1969 Boyer lecture “The Private Man”). Citing other people may be necessary. But you have to do it correctly.

    Google Scholar is a great way to find things. As are footnotes. But reading closely, and widely, should give you an appreciation for what is a primary source, and what might be a secondary one. Sometimes, picking up on the trail back to an older source is – perhaps – the only real evidence of the hours of scholarship behind your work.

    Accurate representation is not only respectful to the original author/s, it’s also respectful to your own work.


    • Trove has two catalogue entries for ‘The private man’, the 1969 Boyer lecture by Zelman Cowen.
      Hopefully one of the 65-odd libraries will be able to send you a copy on inter-library loan (although I’m guessing that you’ve already been down this path).

      To get back on topic, I recently found that what is regarded as a primary source and what is regarded as a secondary source varies according to discipline. This surprised me – I’ve always taken it as one of those canonical definitions.


  7. Eek! As a soon to submit doctoral student this has reminded me of the importance of rigour – thanks Pat!


  8. Pingback: some more issues with citations | patter

  9. Chris says:

    I find that students struggle to know what to do (in science disciplines) when they have read about primary research in a review article. In final year dissertations you see some cite only the review, others cite the original when you know for a fact they haven’t read it, this is most obvious when it was something like an 1862 edition of the a Journal of Latvian Science only available in the original language and not online, but there are more subtle versions where you have a good inkling that they’ve never been near the cited material itself. Obviously the ideal is to try and find the original and read that so it can legitimately be cited. When it is not, I recommend (“[original author] 19xx, cited by [reviewer] 20xx”) but I’ve only followed my nose on this.


    • maelorin says:

      It has been a while since I was an undergraduate science student, however I have taught students in business and in technology programmes in recent years. Reading and writing skills are not front-and-centre in any of their courses – beyond ‘content delivery’ and assessment expectations.

      It is not only students who struggle with accurate referencing. I have read papers across many disciplines, as a scholar, a reviewer, and an editor, and getting referencing ‘right’ is a problem across the board. I wonder if there is a little too much emphasis on style over substance. The proliferation of citation styles, as such, is unnecessary, but my beef is with the perceived ‘need’ to ‘cite the right people’ or to have ‘enough’ of the ‘right’ citations.

      I know I’m not alone in suggesting that first year students would benefit enourmously from their first semester focussing on ‘generic’ literacy and learning skills like essay writing, reading and summarising journal articles, preparing for exams, and the tricky process of figuring out their personal learning ‘style’. Delivered by a combination of discipline and language-and-learning staff, this would help students with what is to come, and help staff identify earlier students who might need more/ongoing assistance. (de-stigmatising that would also help everyone.)

      Throughout undergraduate-level degree courses across sciences, technology, law, and education over a two-decade span, only the law degree directly addressed literacy – through a “professional English for law” course. This first year course wasted a lot of time on writing letters and resumes – I say wasted because none of that is relevant to students with 3-4 more years of study ahead of them. It would have been valuable if it took us through the skills that we would be using throughout our degree – and are fundamental to employability as well.

      Students are often unaware of the practical skills we take for granted: knowing *how* to read an article, how to figure out what you need from it, how to take useful notes, how to figure out citations, how to put it all into a coherent argument. None of this is helped by cut-and-paste high schooling. Leveraging their familiarity with twitter and SMS can give a leg-up to discussing brevity and focus, but clarity, precision, and accuracy can be struggles.


  10. lramil says:

    A reblogué ceci sur lramil and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)


  11. Pingback: Academic writing: some resources | Achilleas Kostoulas

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