the citation dump – and three more citation tactics to avoid – #thesisknowhow

All doctoral researchers know they must locate their work in the literatures. They also know that they must refer to the relevant literatures when they make an argument. Unsubstantiated claims are not acceptable, unless of course they are what is to be empirically interrogated/tested.

However, some doctoral researchers do assume that the purpose of citations in their thesis is primarily to demonstrate that they have read. That they have read in their field full stop. And they must show the examiners their reading.


can you tell me how you are using the term neoliberalism?

Thinking that the purpose of citing is to show the reading leads to seeing citation as being about tactics – citations are the way to provide evidence of the work that the doctoral researcher has done. You cite something to show you have read it. This is essentially seeing citations as data – they are the proof that you’ve done what’s expected.

Unfortunately, citation tactics motivated by the need to provide evidence of work done can raise serious questions in an examiner’s mind – and lead to questions for you in the viva.

Let me show you what I mean.

The thesis reads…


The examiner thinks…
There is a considerable literature about neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005).


Is this sloppy writing or more likely, have you really not read anything else?

How can you locate your work in the field through one text…???

Better ask a question in the viva…

There is a considerable literature about neoliberalism (see the review by Papadagonas, 2013) I googled neoliberalism and literature review and this was the first thing that came up.

Have you not read anything yourself? Why are you not doing your own literature review?

How is reading a meta review using the literature to support your research design and analysis…?

Better ask a question in the viva…

There is a considerable literature about neoliberalism (e.g. Osborne and Gaebler, 1993; Harvey, 2005; Kelsey, 1999). Well yes, these three are about neoliberalism – but these are very different texts. Osborne and Gaebler advocate, Kelsey is telling the story of one country and Harvey is Marxist critique. And they are all from different disciplinary perspectives and different epistemological positions. Did you not understand the differences? Or perhaps you haven’t really read them…

And why these three? What’s the basis for selecting these particular ones?

How is your work situated in relation to these three texts?

What have you taken from them?

How does your contribution speak to these texts?

Better ask a question in the viva…

Perhaps the answer to the examiner objections listed above is simply to put in a better first sentence and more comprehensive references. Well no.   This impulse leads to the citation dump.

The citation dump is where a string of references is put into the text to signify comprehensive reading, or that key texts are known. This is still seeing citation as evidence of reading.

The thesis reads…


The examiner thinks…
Much recent work has focused on the ways that neoliberalism creates structures of oppression (Peterson and Davis 2015; Gupta 2013; Heaney 2004; Peterson, Peterson and Davis 2011; Grafton 2003; Smith 1997; Paterson-Davis 2017). Well this is a list of what the writer has read, but I don’t understand how they think about these texts.

Which are more important – are any of them more important than another?

And what is they writer taking from any of these for their research and argument – just this one point? Surely they got more from these texts than that?

And these texts are actually written over a long period of time – from 1997 to 2017 – hasn’t anything changed in that time?

Are these texts all from the same research traditions and disciplines? What does the writer make of that – are the differences in evidence and interpretation not important to their understanding of what structures of oppression exist and might mean?

The writer just seems to have dumped these citations in the text as a way of proving they’ve read more than one thing.

Better ask a question in the viva …

The moral of this small story is of course that seeing citation as the way you display your reading can get you into trouble.

Citation isn’t a  tactical matter.

Examiners do want to see that doctoral researchers understand the history of a field, its debates and traditions. They do expect doctoral researchers to read widely. They want to see that they are up to date. But most of all they want to see evidence that the doctoral researcher has carefully thought about their own work in relation to what is already out there, and that they have chosen work that they will use and build on and speak back to.

This is not a matter of citing anything at all, or of dumping citations willy nilly. The examiner looks for the ways in which the doctoral researcher argues for their work using the literatures as support, and attributes that work as appropriate, understanding what the texts are and offer.

This is not citation as data, citation as proof of reading.  It is citation as showing the source of the concepts and evidence that are integral to the doctoral research.


Thankyou to JHemon for the comment – and the fourth example I’ve used –  in response to my recent post on the laundry list literature review.

Image: Voogt, Prescott, William (1907) Our domestic animals, their habits, intelligence and usefulness. Ginn & Co: Boston – accessed from Library of Congress 




About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, citation, citation dump, citations, literature review, literature reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to the citation dump – and three more citation tactics to avoid – #thesisknowhow

  1. Excellent post! Because of mistakes I made, like those you mentioned above, I already know that my adviser is going to question me on whether I actually read the works I cited – the last citation dump used to be a habit. I`ve learned, but your post gives a better understanding of what mistakes to avoid and how to effectively use what I`ve read. Thank you!


  2. Judy says:

    A great extension of the previous post about a laundry list of literature review! This is much helpful to research students.


  3. Cath says:

    As a new doctoral student I can relate to the citation dump and laundry list, no doubt a process we all go through in the beginning. Maybe a deeper understanding before we start would be helpful. Or maybe we need walk a much traveled path to GROW through the entire process from proposal to thesis. Thank you


  4. Pingback: Writing a literature review in your own ‘voice’ – How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

  5. Michael Ngoh says:

    Thank you very much for a succinct explanation of citation use. It is very helpful.


  6. I like on how you wrote what the examiner thinks.. this is really helpful. Thank you 🙂


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