Most of us understand that citation is about locating our work in the field.
We cite to show that we understand the field, that we know who counts and we understand what previous studies are important.
We cite to show the “borrowed stuff” we have used to build our own project and what has informed our interpretation and argument.
We cite to show what aspects of the scholarly conversation we contribute to.
But there are other ways to think about citation.
One approach is to see citation as performative. It is not unusual for people to cite simply to indicate that they’ve have done their homework. This is thinking of citation as a kind of peacock display – look how much I’ve read and isn’t it impressive. Another kind of performative thinking is when people assume that they have to cite from the journal that they are submitting to because it’s required. If I don’t quote from the journal they reject me. This performative citation is really a covert form of flattery – if I don’t suck up to the Editors I’m in trouble. And citation is sometimes talked about very instrumentally – mainly by publishers – as a way to get the journal impact factors up.
Another, and more principled, way to approach citations is to see them as academic politics – to understand that who cites who is not a neutral game. There’s no doubt that if you take the time to examine who gets cited and who doesn’t, you can get very depressed. Citation isn’t equitable. Some people hardly get cited at all despite doing really interesting but unfashionable work – they take particular critical, raced, classed, gendered, abled perspectives for instance. The inequitable politics of citation have led to some women in academia forming ‘cite club’; this is a collective tactic to address the invisibility of women’s scholarship in particular fields and reference lists.
A third way to approach citations is to see them as a service to the reader. Here citations sit alongside footnotes, reference lists, tables of content, and indexes – these are all avenues for writers to help their readers enter new scholarly worlds. Sounds silly? Well, just think about how most of us actually read an academic text.
I’m a pretty typical academic reader. When I read a paper, I choose to do so because I have an interest in the topic. And I generally don’t want to just stop with the paper that I’m currently in/on. I’ll want to read some related papers. So, where better to get some clues about where to go next than from the texts the writer has referred to?
I almost always find a few new things to read when I follow up in-text citations. Sometimes this is the citation, or it might be an informative footnote. A footnote gives me one or more references and some additional information. At the time, rather than being distracted from the gist of the reading, I’ll generally make a note of the reference or point. Or – ideally – if the note or reference is hyperlinked, I’ll follow it up straight away and either book mark it, clip the reference or even download it so I can engage with it later.
I much do the same hunting around with books. If I’m reading a book for a particular purpose I almost always, early on, turn to the index to see where a particular topic or perhaps a writer is discussed. I sometimes even check the index for the particular topic or person I’m interested in before I do a lot of reading in the book. The index is my guide to what interests me. The table of contents acts in much the same way – it steers me to the bits I’m interested in.
Citations, footnotes, reference lists, lists of content and indexes are good avenues for getting deep into a topic. By using these handy little adjunct texts you can amass a set of relevant reading relatively quickly. These lead you to various complexities, permutations, and debates. And if you like reading out of your field, or reading texts written in other locations, these side texts can be very helpful indeed; the references that writers use are often culturally and geographically as well as discipline specific.
Supervisors often tell doctoral researchers that one way to build an understanding of the field is to pay attention to the citations in their reading. Reading a few papers and seeing who always gets cited is an important signpost to the key players and texts in a field. When you see the same people referred to over and over again, you get the message that you’d better read these too as they seem to be part of the ‘lingua franca’ of the particular scholarly conversation. (And of course, if you then find out that these people are from a particular elite, then you might want to address and/or challenge their dominance.)
So, given how readers use these aspects of a text, it is worth thinking beyond what they do for you. Switch the perspective. What can you do for your readers?
Taking care with citations, references, foot notes, lists of content and indexes can be of considerable service. Careful little listicles can make the reading that you have done available to other people. These textual adjuncts can become, if you like, part of the gift that your writing can make. Your writing can include an entree into your particular scholarly library.
Citations, references, foot notes and indexes are a window on your academic world.
If that’s the case, it’s well worth taking a little time and care about what citations, references, footnotes, lists of content and indexes that we offer to other colleagues. They are part of the contribution that we make – not a tiresome necessity or an unnecessary imposition.