some more issues with citations

One of the hallmarks of academic writing is the citation. There is very little other writing which bristles with brackets, or sits on a hefty foundation of footnotes. So it’s probably worth just noting the things to watch out for when working with citations. I recently posted about misattributions. But this is not the only thing to be wary of, when citing.

Citation is always a matter of judgment and is always related to your specific topic and discipline. It’s fair to say – and it’s sooooo frustrating because there is no hard and fast rule ever around these scholarly writing conventions – that it’s the Goldilocks principle that applies. Citations – not too many, not too few; not all recent, not all old.

Citation is the academic way to formally acknowledge the work of others and to recognise the collective accumulation of knowledge. But citations do more than this. They do particular work with your scholarly readers. The way that you cite says a lot about how you have approached your field of study, and how methodical you have been. It’s helpful, I think, to carefully consider what citations can do for you.

Citations can be used to:

(1) Assure the reader that you know the field.
Don’t rely too much on the same texts – unless they are the only ones that refer specifically to the topic you are addressing. If there is a load of literature on the topic that you’re writing about, you need to have mapped the field, and then selected the texts that refer specifically to the aspect of the topic you’re discussing. If there is a lot of literature on the topic and you refer only to a bit of it, without justifying why you have made this particular choice of texts, then the reader may well think you are simply citing everything that you have read.

(2) Assure the reader that you have read the field critically.
Be selective. If you try to cite everything ever written on the particular topic, unless it is a really new field it looks like you are just putting in citations willy-nilly without having made a critical, evaluative decision. While it can be really tempting to just dump your Endnote file into your writing, that won’t do the job required.

You need to be able to show the reader that you know the key scholars, trends and debates in the field. You always need to do much more of this in a thesis than in a journal article. In a journal article, citations must be judiciously picked, and very clearly support the argument you are making about the location of the study and its contribution. This means that you won’t just:

• bundle people who have opposing ideas into the same citation without comment or explanation

• cite people who have dealt with your topic in passing, rather than as the central focus of their work, unless the fact that the topic is largely dealt with in in-passing is the mandate for your work

• spend huge slabs of space – and reader time – dealing with various definitions of a topic. Essays do this, but not most published scholarly work. It is always important to show what definition you are using and why, and if it really is crucial that various versions are presented, then the synthesis ought to be done very economically (tables are good for this kind of work). Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, discourse analysis of dominant ways of discussing a topic is one of them.

(3) Assure the reader that you have been thorough.
Go to the original. There is nothing worse for a scholarly reader to see that you have relied heavily on secondary sources – that is, you have cited citations, a lot. This says to the reader that you can’t be bothered to go back and read the primary sources, that you are happy with being highly derivative, that you think it’s OK to rely on other people’s interpretations of important texts.

Now, citing some citations might be absolutely unavoidable. There are primary literatures that you can’t find, that are out of print, that are simply too obscure. But in general, the goal of scholarly work, particularly at doctoral level and beyond, is to pursue a line of thinking. This does mean going back to the original and reading it yourself and doing your own interpretation of the work. So you need to consider how you use citations of citations, and think carefully about which of them are really unavoidable.

(4) Don’t offer generalisations about the field or topic that you can’t back up with citations.
Back-up. It’s pretty common in novice academic writing to see a big generalization about a topic followed by one or two citations. … There is widespread agreement that … Many scholars argue that … A body of research shows that …. As soon as you say something like this, then you must back it up. This back-up is usually a discussion – but at the very least there must be citations. So:

• if a sweeping claim about the field is made, then the following citations usually say e.g. to show that this is a small and judicious selection

• you need to make sure you have enough citations – more than two or three and less than lines and lines of names and dates. You also need to show enough enough variety (author, date, country which ever is most relevant to your argument) within the citations to show the reader that you have made a conscious choice.

There is a caveat to all of this – and that is readability. It can be very tricky for readers to make sense of paragraphs which are more citation than anything else. If hefty citation density goes on for pages, then readers can quickly lose the will to continue. Some thought therefore needs to be given to the ratio of citations to your own writing. Readers generally want to know what you have to say, not what other people have already said – so this is another important principle to keep in mind when citing.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, balance, citation, claim, Goldilocks principle and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to some more issues with citations

  1. maelorin says:

    Citations become even tricker if you are developing an argument across disciplinary boundaries. Disciplines develop their own shorthands and styles for citations.

    Technical disciplines have different languages and different styles for referencing than more descriptive ones. For example, legal citations tend to be a mix of court reports and journal articles examining and critiquing them, while computer science citations are often a combination of technical experiments and reports of field trials.

    Referencing for mixed audiences is tricky when each is unfamiliar with the other’s content; but differing styles can make this harder still. Knowing which journals and which conferences hold sway is not as obvious as looking up the A-B-C lists.

    Explaining what and why becomes even more important: balanced with readability, clarity, and accessibility.


  2. y says:

    I agree with most of the above, but when your manuscript is ready and you want to submit but find either a limited number of citations or words-including references, it is tempting to just replace most of the citations on closly related themes by a recent review of the subject…


  3. Anders says:

    Thought you might enjoy this post from another Blogger I follow:

    I think it highlights the importance of going back to the primary source.



  4. Thank you, Pat, for another, massively timely and relevant post, just as I am preparing to go into class to ‘teach’ this stuff. Your last comment, – ‘Readers generally want to know what you have to say, not what other people have already said’ – reminds me of Pennycook (1996) on layered citations (those whose origin has been lost along the way):

    “….as these words and ideas circulate around the academic community, it becomes unclear
    quite what their origins are. And does it matter? The ideas attributed to Giroux are interesting, but do we need to know who really said them originally? Within contemporary academic writing practices, with layers of citations, e-mail, cutting and pasting, and so on, the adherence
    to supposed norms of authoriality are becoming increasingly hazy”.

    Pennycook, A. (1996) Borrowing others’ words: text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly 30(2): 201-230.


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

  6. Pingback: More on breaking the rules of writing | Academic Emergence

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