Citations and references talk
Daniel Gile, May 5, 2006
To some young scholars, the obligation to include bibliographical references in their publications is basically a nuisance, especially when they feel they have a contribution to make in the form of new ideas or new data. They wish they could focus on their input instead of having to comply with what they consider an essentially formal or social convention, and only cite other authors grudgingly to comply with this convention. Such an attitude actually reflects poor scholarship: research is essentially a systematic and rigorous exploration of reality, and reality includes previously published studies. Thorough scholars read carefully the available relevant literature and cite mostly those works and authors from which they actually took facts and/or inspiration. Citations therefore reflect not only those data and ideas found in the literature, but also the degree of thoroughness of the citing author (they also reflect allegiance to groups, personal alliances etc., but this aspect will not be discussed here in depth).
Lists of references with spelling mistakes, missing information (year of publication, page numbers, place of publication, etc.) and/or violations of typographical conventions (italics, spaces, punctuation, etc.) are indicators of sloppy scholarship – whereas formally perfect lists generate a favorable impression of their author. In terms of substance, references in which important (relevant) studies are missing are indicators of less than thorough scholarship – or of insufficient knowledge of the field, or of allegiances, alliances etc. as mentioned above. As to citations, their nature varies a lot: some refer to findings, some to methodologies, some to theories, some to opinions, some to terms coined by this or that author, etc. The proportions of each category are a good indicator of the type of research being carried out: empirical research tends to cite more findings and methodologies, LAP-oriented research tend to cite more opinions and terms, and meta-analysis of research production based on a category-by-category analysis of citations is much more informative than quantitative-only citation counts. A few papers on this topic have been published in TS.
The important thing to remember for beginners is that however unimportant they believe the citation and reference component to be in their work, to their readers, and in particular to their assessors, this component may be much more important. Critical readers are likely to devote some time to a scrutiny of their list of references, and their assessment of the work is likely to be influenced significantly by the extent to which references and citations seem to reflect thorough or less thorough study of the relevant literature and thorough or less thorough use and formal presentation of this source of information.