Why We Reference

We will discuss the different systems in more detail in How To Reference but before we can consider how to reference I would like us to think about why we reference. It is a question I regularly ask of staff and students in writing workshops and I rarely get a definitive or clear answer. Most of the reasons are hit on but a sense of how the different purposes fit together tends to be lacking. The general picture is piecemeal and indicative of how people tend to learn to reference: by trial and error, a kind of habit acquired by socialisation within academic communities, which on reflection is difficult to unpick how one comes to know what one knows about referencing. Perhaps I am generalising too much but this is certainly how I learnt to reference; no one ever formally taught me how to do it. It was only when I started teaching others about academic writing that I had to unpick my own thinking and practice, which up to that point came from snippets of advice from my professors, from style guides or from looking at other scholars’ work.

Often the first reason given for referencing is ‘to avoid plagiarism’. My heart always sinks a little at this because it is such a negative way of looking at the issue. Avoiding plagiarism is, however, on many people’s minds and for good reason. Essentially, plagiarism is copying and considered as steeling other peoples work and ideas[iv]. Writers are often unsure when to put a reference and anxious about the exact number of words you can use before quotation marks are needed. Is a reference needed if a single word is a term coined by a particular researcher? Is it two or three words and does that apply to common phrases within a particular discipline? And there is the Ecclesiastes position[v]: perhaps no ideas are ever original and therefore every sentence needs a supporting reference.

The answers to these and others will follow presently. For now, we will stay with avoiding plagiarism, both to get it out of the way and because it can tell us something important about the essential nature of referencing.

From the point of view of academic practice referencing to avoid plagiarism is premised on two fundamental aspects of scholarly research. Firstly, referencing recognises the contribution of previous thinkers and in part this is a kind of social practice of a community of peers giving due credit to other members of the group – a politeness as well as a good idea professionally. But it is also much more than this. There is a legal obligation to reference and a failure to do it can have severe consequences, including legal action or institutional disciplining. Along with falsifying results, plagiarism is the ultimate academic taboo and as such the social and the legal have become blurred and confused. The legal aspect of referencing is that knowledge, the real business of the academia, is underpinned by some basic economic concepts. Maybe the apparent free flow of information in the digital age has undermined this somewhat but knowledge and ideas, especially in the academic context, are commodities; that is why we speak of ‘intellectual property’. We can literally own ideas and the fruits or our intellectual labour.

Copyright is the thing that legally enshrines rights over previously published work, and typically this has two main agents who are protected. One is the author or authors; while the other is the publisher. Authors have rights for their lifetime plus 50-70 years post-mortem, depending on the type of work created. Publishers have a 25 year copyright from the end of the year of first publication, which pertains to the physical properties of the textual artefact, for example the typographical and paginated arrangement. In both cases it is the expression of ideas rather than the ideas in themselves which gain protection. Therefore, the copying of extracts of a text in to a piece of your writing without indicating by the use of quotation marks that it is a borrowing would clearly be plagiarism, as would merely altering a few of the words of a sentence or paragraph. There is also something called ‘fair dealing’ which controls how much of a text is reasonable to copy, whether a photocopy, digital scan or transcription into a new text[vi]. Most university library websites give good advice on the finer details of this. However, for the purposes of most academic work, if you are quoting extracts from books or journals you are covered by fair dealing but must mark the extracts as quotations and provide source references. Paraphrases and passing the idea off as your own is also plagiarism in the academic context. If someone has been influential in developing a point their contribution can easily be recognised with the addition of an attributing reference. This has the additional advantage of then demonstrating the sources of your thinking to your readers, and is something examiners, peer-reviewers, and fellow scholars are interested in too.

Therefore the legal right of authors enshrines in law that ideas have an economic value and reality, which in turn means that specific ideas can be attributed to specific authors, whether single or plural[vii]. An idea having a legal reality is very useful for the business of research. It enables us to locate and pin down meaning and knowledge to specific texts and authors; we can go and check the texts for ourselves and check the accuracy of them; and we can hold people to account if needs be (for example in cases of liable, factual inaccuracies or falsifying results). It is the legal status of intellectual property and copyright that enable academic discourse to take place because it means that specific positions can be defined; and if positions are taken then an argument can take place. If no one takes a clear position on a point or it is unclear who is responsible for a piece of work then it would be difficult to have an argument. But these are not just figurative positions they are also physical positions within a text, i.e. references and the statements made in a specific text identified by an author(s), date and place of publication[viii].

For readers, references are a guide to the writer’s thinking. Readers often read the introduction and conclusion first, as well as the reference list, as these sections are rich with references and map the shape of the argument as a whole. Readers, therefore, are not primarily on the lookout for plagiarism, though well read, expert readers may spot it because something is amiss. Instead, academic readers are looking for supporting evidence, how you have used the references (in positive or negative support of an argument), or if there are any references they are not familiar with and will chase up. An academic writer should use knowledge of what has gone before as a foil for their own argument; rather, than as paranoid parries against charges of plagiarism.

To that argumentatively useful end, a reference can be deployed in a number of ways which academic readers will consider important. For example, references are used to support basic statements of fact, specifying the ‘known knowns’ (I paraphrase an famous American politician here) for the readership. This is important because all arguments start with premises and references are good shorthand to lay the ground quickly and usually at the start of a piece. Secondarily, these same statements and their supporting references help situate a reader within one of many possible topics any discipline may be interested in. Consider the following for example,

The effects of climate change are already being observed on a wide range of ecosystems and species in all areas of the world (Rosenzweig et al. 2007)…[ix] 

This is the first reference in a review paper in the journal Climatic Change. There are numerous topics discussed in this journal but in the very first line this paper delimits its scope to the audience. The statement, supported by a reference, mentions the effects on species and their environments across the globe. Therefore, for me this statement is already generating expectations: I expect this paper to discuss some issue germane to climate change and its effects on eco-systems (or why else mention it); and that the perspective of the paper is likely to have something to do with a variety of eco-systems across the world (again, why else mention ‘all areas of the world’). Also, I can already make some decisions about whether to read on; perhaps, if my research interest is in salinity in the North Atlantic Ocean then I know this is probably not directly relevant to my research.

It is not just the paper’s scope which has been delimited to some degree by this first statement: because that statement has been supported with a reference I can have a level of trust in its assertion. It references a significant international academic report published by a major academic publishing house. There is no need to outline the evidence because to support the statement Resenzweig et al have already done so. The reference enables me to locate and check the work for myself, if I feel the need.

A couple of relevant asides here: firstly, I am not a climate scientist so I had to check with a colleague who is whether the report to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, which Resenzweig et al is published in, is an important peer-reviewed publication. The response I got was ‘this is the IPCC report. It’s not reviewed through the normal process, but everyone can comment on it, and all the queries have to be answered before it’s accepted’ (emphasis in the original)[x]. The point being that as a non-expert reader of climate science I do not have that kind of basic background knowledge. For me it was just another reference but for a climate scientist the IPCC report is an important publication. (Some references are more important than others, hence journal rankings). An expert reader weighs up the supporting references with much more skill and background information (that’s what makes them an expert); where as a novice, such as myself, can get the gist but has to do a lot more work to appreciate the importance or certain references. Either way, for both novice and expert the reference enables multiple things to be achieved at once.

Secondly, I have used the above quote and its accompanying text in many writing workshops with postgraduate students. One incident was particularly informative on social character of knowledge which references embody. A student at a Russell Group University asked me why the authors started the paper with such a controversial statement. I was somewhat puzzled as I thought quite the opposite, so I asked him to explain. He then elaborated that global warming was a controversial subject and much disputed. Realising he was climate change denier I did not want to get into a topic, which was tangential to a doctoral writing class, so I came up with the following compromise: the above statement is not a controversial statement for the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, and particularly the ones who write for the journal Climate Change. At first sight this may seem like extreme relativism: that one group’s knowledge is another group’s propaganda, and that it is the internal discourse of the group which defines its truth. This is not what I am saying. It is the case that for the majority of climate scientists, climate change and its effects on species and ecosystems are facts; and facts here can be read as those things with a majority of the group hold to be true, based on current available evidence. However, that is not to say that all groups are equal in their claims to truth. Religious fundamentalists might claim a monopoly on religious truth and that same group may deny that the earth is more than six-thousand years old and that humans share a common evolutionary origin with the great apes. But the religious zealots’ arguments do not stand up to empirical verification; they are impervious to rational argument based on research and the rigorous testing of hypothesis, or inductive analysis. In fact, they are not really arguments at all in the scholarly sense. Their truths are absolute where as ours are not. Scholastic truth is a more difficult thing to define; some might even quibble with the use of the words ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ or ‘prove’. Rather, knowledge, a better word perhaps, is the product of the collective endeavours of communities of peers, researching to test and evidence assertions. Therefore, scholarly knowledge is more like ‘these are the things we currently believe, most of us anyway, and we are prepared to change those beliefs if someone can prove, based on empirical verification and well reasoned argument, that other things are better things to believe’. Unfortunately, it’s not very snappy.

Though a little tangential this is pertinent to social character of reference we are discussing. Referencing is a shared discursive practice among fellow researchers, encompassing elements of legal obligations, professional etiquette and conventions for supporting and evidencing arguments. The discursive character of references is ‘intertextual’: they make links (‘exophora’ is the technical term from linguistics and rhetoric) external to the text at hand. There are a number of discursive strategies used to introduce those references, which involve both the form and manner of language used to introduce and comment on those references. By form I mean the different types of rhetorical set-pieces an author can draw on to introduce a reference. Form is a complex thing and will be dealt with in dealt with in the essay How To Reference  ass in the conventional orthographic systems used by different academic disciplines, and how to rhetorically introduce references for different purposes. By manner I mean using an appropriate scholarly voice when discussing references, which means being aware of how aggressive or equivocal you are and this is unpacked How To Reference.

The final thing I would like to touch on in this section also speaks to the social character of referencing and the nature of scholarly work: it is referencing to create a gap or niche. This may sound counter intuitive. How can one reference something that is not there? Quite right; you can’t, but this is perhaps the most important thing which scholarly writers do because it is the essence of the enquiring, critical thinker. A gap in research or thinking is where an author makes a claim for the need of their work on the basis that some problem or deficiency in the existing literature. This is applicable from the senior researcher, who publishes cutting edge research papers, to the undergraduate writing a two-thousand word essay, and everyone in between. Though the level of mastery of the literature may be different, all scholarly writing requires its writers to bring a sceptical mind to reading, a mind which asks difficult questions and inspects the fine detail or makes links between ideas or results. We will cover this in much more depth in Chapter 5 when discussing introductions. However, it is relevant to say here that creating a gap is about locating a problem or issue that would be of interest to your readers and which your forthcoming work will discuss or attempt to answer. This is a social characteristic of referencing because it is the interests of the academic discipline which determine or strongly influence what topics are up for consideration. Niches are defined by the state of current thinking and as such evidence that a problem exists can be found in the literature.

The types of problems or questions which need to be answered are potential innumerable but readers can identify them because they are either explicitly or implicitly referred to in the literature. As such, one is not really referencing something which is not there. Explicit problems are easy enough to find – given enough reading time and good search strategies – as other researchers will have indicated the need for further work to be done, with phrases such as ‘this indicates the need for further work’ or ‘it raises further questions’. The nature of research is that once you answer one set of questions or explore one issue, like the Lernaean Hydra, many more questions appear in their stead. Implicit problems are different, no explicit reference to them exists but they are logically deducible from previous work, either by positive or negative critique of methods, the interpretation of results and the practical or theoretical implications said to follow.

Referencing: Claims and Quotes

The true test of any piece of writing is when it is given to a readership. A writer stands and falls by what they have written because at that point the author loses control over the text[xi]. As academic debate is based on making a convincing argument, understanding the etiquette of argument will help to put it across more effectively. The following points discuss some of the potential problems a writer can run into when discussing ‘the literature’. Etiquette, however, is a nuanced social phenomenon and as such other aspects of it are also dealt with in section 4.6 ‘How to cite works and use quotations’. Some may rejoin here that the academic style should be ideologically neutral, devoid of subjective or social influence. But as we have already discussed in the introduction, the dispassionate scholarly style is still a construction of the academics that use it and they choose not to use, or to play down, more personal and emotive language. Viewed like this the dispassionate style is still functioning as a shibboleth of social values: it is just that the values are, generally, ones which prize objectivity and rationality above personal narrative and emotion. Remember, it is not just what you say; it is how you say it.

Don’t over claim on a reference – Perhaps self-evident but not uncommon, this is to match the detail or strength of the claim you are making with the content of the reference you are using to support it. Not over claiming requires understanding the difference between major and minor studies, or knowing which pieces of theory or experimental results came first. Therefore, a sophisticated reader is one who reads many different texts and can put them into some sort of meaningful relationship. This sophistication also comes from an ability to simultaneously synthesise ‘the literature’ in a way acceptable or plausible to other readers and writers in the field, and to add some, potentially original, personal interpretation of that material.

Don’t over claim on a second-hand reference – If it is important enough to reference it is important enough to consult firsthand. This is a principle of good scholarship. However, there is so much literature and some of it comes across second hand, when some particular theorist or empirical work is read about in the research paper, monograph or textbook. The text you are reading might be well respected and trusted in its own right, but this is no excuse because referencing a work once removed is more likely to replicate error. It is not just a matter of distortion or misrepresentation. At higher levels (Masters and up) of academic writing the writer must cultivate their own unique critical perspective, developed through immersion in the literature and of experience of carrying out research. One should not just trust the opinions of others; instead your opinion should be informed by a first-hand reading.

Don’t quote something you have not read, i.e. ‘as cited in…’ – Similar to the previous point but where an exact quotation is used. Again, it is always far better to consult the original reference. ‘As cited in’ may be tolerated at undergraduate, where textbooks are often a mainstay of background reading, but at Masters, doctoral and peer-reviewed publication it is to be avoided at all costs. There can be errors in the original quotation, where a work has been miscopied or mistranslated. It is the job of the academic to track down the original by inter-library loan or by visiting rare collections or more comprehensive libraries. Exceptions would be when a rare document appears in a publication which is considered a standard reproduction of that document and that it is not incumbent on the researcher to inspect the original document. An example might be C.G. Jung’s famous, hand crafted Red Book. For years it was kept by the Jung family in a Swiss bank vault and only recently has it been reproduced[xii]. The original manuscript is still extremely difficult to consult first hand but the reproduction, with translation would suffice for most readers. Similarly, when translations of important works are made into English then the scholar need not necessarily read it in the original language unless it is germane to the type of study they are doing, for example, a French literature student reading Voltaire in the French, or a classics scholar reading Cicero in the Latin. Similarly, rare historical manuscripts reproduced in an accepted authoritative source are ok as long as it is not considered reasonable that the original be consulted.

How many words constitute a quotation? Is a reference needed if a single word is a term coined by a particular researcher? Is it two or three words and does that apply to common phrases within a particular discipline? Perhaps no ideas are ever original and therefore every sentence needs a supporting reference. These are questions commonly asked and the answers are entirely straightforward so let us take each of these in turn.

How many words constitute a quotation? To answer this think back to what was stated about why we reference, essentially it is to support your argument but also to recognise social obligations of an individual’s intellectual contribution as well as the legal obligation to recognise copyright. When one is quoting, the exact wording of another writer is being taken and reworked into one’s own prose. Quotation marks indicate to the reader when you are doing this and the supporting reference in brackets or parenthetical note tells the reader the source. The writer should be well aware of when they are doing this, even if it is short but particularly memorable phrase from an author. For example, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ oft quoted phrase on the predicament of man in a hypothetical ‘state of nature’ as ‘nasty, brutish, and short’[xiii] would require a reference, even though it is only a fragment of the larger extract. While only a four word quote it is an idiosyncratic formulation of those four words, encapsulating a unique opinion that needs recognising. This is possibly not the most clear cut answer, but I think a rule of saying three or four words equals a quotation would be misleading. It is a quotation if you are copying something directly from someone else. This may break down if it is only one or two words, as these could just be grammatical links or even noun phrases which are concepts. This brings us to another point.

You may have noticed the use of the term a ‘state of nature’, which was a once common thought experiment used in philosophy – John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau also used it as a reasoning tool in their treatises on political philosophy. This has quotation marks around it but not a reference after it. Why? Here the phrase a ‘state of nature’ is a known term in philosophy and carries a set of specialised meanings but it is not assignable to a specific individual; it is commonly used amongst political philosophers over an extended period, though it varies in its exact meaning[xiv]. The quotation marks indicate that the words or phrase is being deployed as a concept – an alternative sometimes used is to italicise or capitalise the term. However, some terms or concepts are attributable to an individual or group of thinkers. ‘Habitus’ is a Latin word reinvented and identified with the sociological theorist Pierre Bourdieu; ‘deconstruction’ with the continental philosopher Jacques Derrida; ‘natural selection’ with Charles Darwin, ‘the selfish gene’ with Richard Dawkins, the ‘Higgs Boson’ with Peter Higgs and so on. On their first usage it is good practice to identify the concept with a defined work by the originating author. Thereafter the concept typically does not need setting in quotation marks or italics. However, the term could be so well know in the field that this would be unnecessary – does ‘natural selection’ need attributing to Charles Darwin?

The relationship between words and their meanings is not a fixed one; and while it may once have been necessary to attribute a reference to concept things change. Concepts can become quite fashionable – a credit to their descriptive or conceptual usefulness – and they become used far beyond their initial sense. ‘Postmodernism’ would be such an example, of which the late Richard Rorty wrote:

The word ‘postmodernism’ has been rendered almost meaningless by being used to mean so many different things. If you read a random dozen out of the thousands of books whose titles contain the word ‘postmodern’, you will encounter at least half a dozen widely differing definitions of that adjective. I have often urged that we would be better without it – that the word is simply too fuzzy to convey anything.[xv]

So overextended can concepts become that scholars can be lead to question their utility and redefine their nature and parameters. This may be more of an issue in the Social Sciences and Humanities than for mathematicians or the Natural Sciences, who seem to have fewer disputes of this kind[xvi].

Works Cited:

[iv] ‘Plagiarism’ is borrowed from the Latin plagiarus meaning plunderer, and from plagium meaning kidnapping. The borrowing, therefore, appears to have been initially a metaphorical one, which well describes the act of plagiarism, including its sense of malfeasance and moral transgression.

[v] By this I paraphrase the popular sentiment derived from Ecclesiastes 1:9: ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’

[vi] A good concise overview to copyright relating to academic work can be found in New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (2005, Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.371-382).

[vii] Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book (1976, London: Verso. pp.159-166) discusses how long it took for a concept of author rights and intellectual property to develop. It took more than 200 years after the invention of moveable type printing by Gutenberg for author rights to start to be an accepted part of publishing. Febvre and Martin cite John Milton and his Paradise Lost as an early example in 1667 of an author received continual payment commensurate with publishing success. Before then, when a text was bought from an author the publisher owned all rights to a text. Publishers could therefore do whatever they wished with a manuscript, including reprinting and changing it without permission of the author.

[viii] Thinkers Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty, often described as post-modernists, have played with the conventions of referencing, and the language which surrounds it, as part of their philosophical projects, which have sought to question our conventional understanding of knowledge. They also problematised the idea of the text as an unproblematic unity. An element of this was separating the responsibility of the author from her text. Foucault once wrote: ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write’ (The Archaeology of Knowledge 1997, London: Routledge, p.17).  Rorty is more playful and similarly does not pack authors and their texts too closely together; Rorty sees his use of another’s text his not the author’s, illustrated by this footnote ‘I should remark that Davidson cannot be held responsible for the interpretation I am putting on his views, nor for the further views I extrapolate from his. For an extended statement of that interpretation, see my “Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth,” in Ernest Lepore, ed., Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984). For Davidson’s reaction to this interpretation, see his “After-thoughts” to “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge,” in Alan Malachowski, Reading Rorty (Oxford: Blackwell, in press).’ (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p10).  Therefore, the reference to Donald Davidson’s work is a reference which both does and does not support what Rorty is claiming. All of sudden textual certainties seem altogether less certain. Derrida’s ‘Limited Inc.’ is a reply to the analytic philosopher John Searle critique, in which Derrida plays (in a playful sense) with the concept of reference, as part of this he changes Searle’s name to Sarl.

Perhaps you will find this more than a little contradictory and, therefore, of little help. Well, my response is that this is a facet of the footnote: a textbook isn’t of much use if it doesn’t tell you the way it is, facts if you will; but that is not to say that ‘the facts’ are a priori truths, ineffable and undisputable to the last. To maintain such a position would in itself be bad scholarship and thereby undermine the very purpose of a textbook. The distinction being driven at is, on the one hand textual practices as they are, and on the other hand the ontological limitations to which those practices give rise to in academic theorising about language. The former relates to the main body of this text and is of practical use; while the later can be left to do its more ethereal work out of sight in the footnotes, which at its limits, as with Rorty, Foucault or Derrida may break down under unconventional discursive pressure. If you are not engaged in such work, fear not.

[ix] Warren, R., Price, J., Fischlin, A. ‘Increasing impacts of climate change upon ecosystems with increasing global mean temperature rise.’ Climatic Change, 106 (2011), 141-177.

[x] Personal correspondence with Dr Iselin Medhaug, University of Bergen.

[xi] This is the essence of Plato’s much recited problem with the written word commented on in The Republic and Phaedrus. For a fuller discussion of which see Thomas Cole’s The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece.1995, London: John Hopkins University Press. Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What is an author’ also discusses the ontological relationship between an author and her texts.

[xii] Jung, C.G (Sonu Shamdasani, Editor, Translator, John Peck, Translator, Mark Kyburz Translator) The Red Book: Liber Novus. W. W. Norton & Co.

[xiii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Penguin [p. for ‘nasty, brutish and short’ quote].

[xiv] At one time a ‘state of nature’ may have been someone’s unique formulation (perhaps Thomas Aquinas) but it became a widely accepted concept with a communitarian ownership.

[xv]  Rorty, Richard, (Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin, 1999) p. 263.

[xvi] Thomas Kuhn notes in the preface to his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996, third edition): ‘[S]pending the year in a community composed predominantly of social scientists confronted me with unanticipated problems about the differences between such communities [of social scientists] and those of the natural scientists among whom I had been trained. Particularly, I was struck by the number and extent of the overt disagreements between social scientists about the nature of legitimate scientific problems and methods.’ (p. x)