Anything can be referenced, particularly any written text, but also artefacts such as paintings and sculptures or other collections of objects. However, not everything can be referenced for the same purposes, and so how a writer handles sources is important: some things are better suited to particular rhetorical ends than other things.
Peer reviewed work – As a rule of thumb, peer reviewed work, and more specifically double-blind peer reviewed work is the gold standard of academic discourse. Double-blind peer review is best practice for assessing the value of new work for scholarly journals. Typically, a paper or article submitted to a journal is sent by the editor to two experts in the field. The author’s name is deleted and neither reviewer is aware the other is reviewing the same paper. This procedure is to mitigate bias and enable the work to stand on its own merits. It is also the procedure monographs go through with academic publishers, either by review of a detailed proposal and at least one chapter or of the full manuscript. For new research, reviewers are assessing on the basis of the work’s rigour, significance and originality, i.e. whether or not the work offers something new and important to a specific group of researchers who write for and read a particular journal. The majority of scholarly work is situated within a tradition of exploring the world through theoretical (for example, theoretical physics, pure mathematics, or philosophy) and empirical evidence (for example, experimental physics, applied mathematics or sociology, linguistics, history etc…).
The two main sources for peer-reviewed work in most disciplines are peer-reviewed journals and monographs. Journals are particularly dominant in the natural sciences and social sciences; while monographs (research books) are still important in the arts and humanities, and also, but to a slightly lesser degree, in the social sciences[xvii]. Textbooks are generally not considered on a par with new, original research. They are good surveys of a topic or established areas of study; however, new work found in research journals and monographs are more highly valued within the academia because they present the newest advances within a field.
Double blind peer-review insures a level of rigour to academic research which other systems like peer-to-peer review and other forms of published discourse just cannot match. But that is not to say that other kinds of literature are not also useful and cannot be referenced.
Grey literature – This is sometimes used as catch all term to refer, that is cite, any other non-peer reviewed literature or data. For some this includes materials that have a wider audience than academia, including things like policy documents, memoranda, committee reports, trade or practitioner journals, and informative consumer pamphlets. Others also count as grey literature academic texts which are not double-blind peer reviewed, such conference proceedings, technical specifications, personal correspondence, and unpublished under and postgraduate theses and dissertations, bibliographies and working papers. Of the former type, these are often produced for a non-specialist audience and may be written by experienced and authoritative researchers, for example leading experts are often asked to contributing to government and committee reports. Because of a more explicate social orientation they may be useful barometers of public, professional or policy interest, something which may be useful to know when reviewing the literature or applying for public funding. On the other hand, reports and policy document have a more overt agenda and can lack the neutrality and rigour of academic research.
The latter type of grey literature – those produced for an academic audience but not peer review-published – are of a more technical nature and often more quickly available than through the slow process of scholarly review and publication. For that reason they are both useful and limited. They are useful because, as with conferences, one often hears the latest presentation of information before it is available in print. However, it is not yet double-blind peer reviewed and as such is less rigorous. Some of the kinks may still to be ironed out and the information can be quite raw, the interpretation early in maturation, and the methods yet to stand up to close scrutiny.
Therefore, both types of grey literature can have their uses, but they must be handled with care. Peer-reviewed work must always be questioned but questioning must be even more quizzical of work that has not gone through the same exacting review process of a scientific paper or monograph. Consequently, it is more difficult, if not unadvisable, to make confident statements of empirical findings based on grey literature. Handle with care.
Ephemera – for example media documents, digital texts published on websites but also any other ephemeral texts or objects like pamphlets, posters, manifestos can also be referred to. Again, one has to remember the purposes with which a text is being referred. The problem with ephemera is their transitory nature and as such their verifiability is more difficult. Some ephemera like political pamphlets find their way into collections, more reliably stored and catalogue by some archive or other. These are then more easily and reliably referred to. The ideological nature of the media is a well evidenced[xviii] and so their comments on the world do not emanate from the same positions of scholarly neutrality aimed for in academic discourse. This goes for surveys and other statistical or empirical data which may emanate from newspapers, broadcast or internet media outlets. That doesn’t mean that the media are mere gossip peddlers, far from it, jus that some additional care need be taken to judge the rigour of any data they use.
The internet is an increasingly important tool in academic life to a point where it is now absolutely indispensable to the business of research and teaching in universities[xix]. However, the instability of websites as locations to reference is of concern. Websites get old and can disappear, with hyperlinks no longer functional. The old printed practice of book and journal publishing of identifying a physical place of publishing as well as a legal entity of a business, i.e. a publisher, is undermined by the ethereal nature of the internet. It has no geographical, physical place. This has been circumvented somewhat in our citation practice of not only noting the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) but also the date on which the webpage was downloaded (see section 4.5 below for more details). Nevertheless, pages still disappear or change their content. The internet has also made publishing democratic – at least to anyone who can buy or get hold of the right equipment and education – another problem being the potential anonymity of authors. Free encyclopaedia sites like Wikipedia are very popular but also receive criticism because they are said to lack rigour in some of their entries. I know of academic colleagues, real specialists in their fields, who add pages to
Wikipedia and truly embrace its democratic freedom of information ethos. It is also easy to find both small and large mistakes, if not absolutely misleading information.
Digital technology also allows texts to be easily altered, and taken with the other problems just noted amount to instability of the text: in its composition, its location of reference and in its authorship[xx]. For referencing this then is a problem concerned with our ability to verify the tripartite: tracing the original document, authentication (in the sense of identifying its authors), and typographic stability on the page, secured by stable typesetting of the words to an unchanging pagination. This is all by way of a brief explanation of the problems that can arise when using digital material. However, the internet and digital technological are an indispensable tool in modern academic life, so these words should not be taken as a criticism of all that is digital. Far from it. To round off, I would note that the academia has successfully integrated many of its old typographic textual practices with new digital ones. For example, academic journals are now easily available online, no need to manually search dusky old stacks in the library; but these journals, although online still look just like their former paper selves, formatted into pages, with contents and indexes, place of publication and attributed authors. As such the old textual practices of referencing largely remain, if only modified to include the referencing of digital media.
This is the end though there is still more to say about referencing; that is more to do with the mechanics of citation and its contribution to your scholarly voice – see the next essay under ‘Referencing Systems’. However, we are done here with our rather lengthy discussion of the Tao, or way, of referencing. I called it the ‘Tao’ because there is so much that is unsaid but which underpins the everyday practice of referencing that it sometimes seems a little mystical. I also wanted to call it the ‘Tao’ because, like religious practice, referencing it is a way of life for an academic and researcher. Its practices and lore are one of the basic pillars of scholarship, and any neophyte to research world must become familiar with the ways of the reference if they are to progress.
[xviii] For a classic text on the subject see James Curran and Jean Seaton’s Power Without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain (7th edition). (London: Routledge, 2009).
[xix] James O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) presents an interesting discussion of the impact of digital media on the role universities and academics.
[xx] Of course digital media also mark a significant change in the working practices of academics and so perhaps a little anxiety is to be expected. The effects caused by changes in the textual practices of knowledge and its potential implications has been discussed in what may be called the Havelockian tradition, after Eric A. Havelock’s 1963 thesis Preface to Plato (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). Both Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy, London: Methuen, 1982) and Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) took up this intellectual thread, exploring the idea that different linguistic and textual practices restructure knowledge over time. Foucault’s work is also concerned with this, though not explicitly as a causation of textual practices. The Havelockian thesis is now somewhat out of fashion, however, others have picked up this thread in their own ways. James O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Word, already mentioned, is one such example, others are David .M Levy’s Scolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age (New York: Arcade, 2001) and Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009) by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Levy points out that the text, even in the typographic age, has never been a particularly stable thing and is bound up with how we conceptualise them as objects and concepts; while Mayer-Schönberger argument is that the problem with the digital age is not its instability but rather its inability to forget anything.