Patrick-Dunleavy-thumb1The significance of citations goes far beyond energising and rewarding academic competition. Patrick Dunleavy outlines why citations are so important; from setting up a specialist discourse in an economical and highly-focused manner, guiding readers seeking to follow your extended chain of reasoning, right through to showing you have comprehensively surveyed all relevant work and pointed out its consistencies (or otherwise) with your own findings. A better appreciation of the multiple functions of citations should help to address the chronic under-citation that particularly besets the humanities and social sciences.

The sociologist Robert Merton wrote perceptively about citations:

“[T]he institutionalised practice of citations and references in the sphere of learning is not a trivial matter. [Readers] located outside the domain of science and scholarship may regard the lowly footnote or the remote endnote or the bibliographic parenthesis as a dispensable nuisance .. [But] these are in truth central to the [academic] incentive system and an underlying sense of distributive justice, that do much to energise the advancement of knowledge.”

Yet the significance of citations goes far beyond energising and rewarding scientific and academic competition, and for PhDers and early career researchers it is worth briefly enumerating these rationales somewhat more.

All academic research and argument has seven essential characteristics. It is formally stated. Each work contributes to an advanced and specialist conversation. And academic work tackles difficult issues. It forms part of a cumulative and collegial endeavour. Research is evidence-based, and its provenance can always be checked. Research is also demanding and consistent in assessing empirical “facts”. All these features mean that referencing and citing are vital components of academic practice. The decisions that scientists and academics make about including or not including citations to support their arguments play a very important role in conditioning how their colleagues regard and evaluate their work. The table below unpacks a bit further the reasons why citations are so important, set against the seven criteria mentioned above.

Defining attributes of academic workWhat the attribute meansThe related role of citations and referencing
Formally statedPremises and assumptions are explicit, and arguments are precisely expressedTo specify sources for assumptions and their contextual legitimacy, and to contextualise arguments within a defined field
Part of an advanced conversationAcademic work expresses a lot of content in a brief space, using specialist terminology or notationsTo set up a specialist discourse in an economical and highly-focused manner, and to show how the relevant literature defines concepts, terms or notations
CumulativeArguments are built up layer by layerTo show that the author has read the relevant literature and has a good understanding of it
Tackling difficult issuesAcademic work goes beyond common-sense understandings and (generally) seeks theory-based and non-obvious explanations of complex, hard-to-understand phenomenaTo guide readers seeking to follow the author’s extended chain of reasoning. Readers should be able to understand and “replay” the intellectual journey involved
CollegialProfessionals carefully accord credit to other authors where it is due. STEM disciplines assign special emphasis to those who are first in discovering or correctly understanding phenomena (primacy)To accurately assign credit to other researchers for key innovations and relevant prior findings or arguments, so that readers can also access this work for themselves
Evidence-basedArguments are grounded in proofs, recorded facts, or other auditable tokens. The provenance of all claims should be checkableTo allow readers to quickly find and precisely check sources of evidence or other tokens for themselves.

An extended version of this criterion, now dominant in more and more STEM and social sciences fields, is that all published work should include a replication archive with data and guidance to make it reproducible
Empirically consistentEvidence and arguments are related to other views or findings, and divergences are explained. In STEM subjects there is a general premium on considering all scientific evidence on the exact same topic, carried through most strongly in “systematic review”. Elsewhere this criterion is often more loosely interpretedTo show that the author has comprehensively surveyed work that is relevant in scope, approach and recency, and to specifically point out consistencies and inconsistencies between other work and the author’s own findings

Better appreciating the multiple roles of citations should help authors in discipline groups where chronic under-citation is a curiously seductive and hard-to-eradicate form of academic self-harm – the humanities (especially) and many social sciences. It is simply unacceptable scientific or academic behaviour now to ignore immediately relevant research or argument already in the public domain just because it does not help your case, or suit your style of work, or comes from a different discipline.

In the digital era the argument above also makes clear that open access sources should always be the primary reference sources, relegating paywalled sources to secondary status. Linking to OA texts whenever available is consistent with the scientific and academic mission, whereas referencing only paywalled sources is clearly restrictive. Perhaps, as the years pass by, even the authors of the badly out of date style guides still being issued by professional bodies like the APA and MLA will begin to take note.

This blog post originally appeared on the Writing For Research blog and is reposted with permission.

Featured image credit: Citation Needed by Tom Morris (licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he has worked since 1979. He has authored and edited numerous books on political science theory, British politics and urban politics, as well as more than 50 articles in professional journals. He is Chair of the Public Policy Group.

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