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By Alistair Kwan

Alistair Kwan is Susan Carter’s colleague and his thoughts on citation in a recent conversation prompted this post. Alistair envisions a workshop from his thoughts, and you could respond with a comment to let us know whether you agree. He provides the learning objectives and enough examples to prompt substantial thinking.

I have been complaining for years that students and learning assistance staff don’t understand how citation works, and in fact our support people and supervisors often guide students unwittingly onto the wrong path. One of our students, and some journal submissions that I’ve reviewed this year, have me at last thinking that it’s time to act.

So here is a start of an idea. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts as to whether it could be developed into a single workshop, or a short sequence?

Learning objectives of a workshop on citation:

Objective 1. To recognise various uses of citation when reading

For example,

  • to defer to, and hence endorse or accept, another author’s definition or argument
  • to indicate further reading for readers interested in more
  • to indicate the source of evidence under discussion
  • to establish which (or whose) variation of a concept you’re working with
  • to converse with or respond to another writer or a clique
  • to associate yourself with, or distinguish yourself from, a clique or even the mainstream — i.e. disciplinary identity-crafting
  • to critique other work
  • to state or nuance how the reader should interpret your engagement with, endorsement of, or opposition to other work
  • as a helpful extra (more likely in textbooks than research writing)
  • ritualistic (e.g. practically every citation of Lave & Wenger or Bloom in spite of the author using later versions of their ideas in response to subsequent researchers)
  • faked, perhaps copied from someone else who cited also those same wrong page numbers
  • to indicate peripheral relationships to other research (perhaps because a reviewer insisted)
  • showing off, or defensiveness
  • excited sharing of something that you absolutely have to mention just because it’s so interesting or fun (and maybe not relevant or not helpful)
  • other uses?

Objective 2. To understand that there are also bad reasons for citing

Citation should not be for the following use: “so the examiner can see that your ideas aren’t actually crazy, because a respected scholar has already had this idea, too, and it was good enough to get published.” This is an idea I’ve often heard from PhD students at orientation days.

Citations should also not be piled up — especially in APA notation — at the end of a sentence to perform no obvious function whatsover. I often see this in published articles but, to me, that constitutes bad writing, bad reviewing, bad editorship. If you know the literature cited, it can be immediately obvious that the citations serve multiple purposes, including some with no intellectual substance. I suspect that some of us do this as part of academia’s cover-your-arse ritualism. It is perhaps even appropriate when a reviewer insists that you must cite some particular work but you can’t figure out what it has to do with your own, so you cite it as meaninglessly as possible. At the same point, you may remind yourself how, and by what passage, Dante passed from hell into paradise. (Will I lose marks if I don’t cite the canto here?)

Citation should also not be transparently purposeless self- advertising—although it is excusable to self-cite when one idea develops from earlier publication….

Objective 3. To recognise the different grammatical structures that effect different citation purposes

So with those learning objectives in mind, here are some ideas for a workshop. We would run this workshop by analysing and interpretating illustrative specimens. I’m listing some here, rummaged from papers on my desk right now. I found a sentence in a draft thesis where the author, Sibum, includes the whole citation in their sentence, thus:

Specimen from Sibum: “Reworking the mechanical value of heat,” Studies in the history and Philosopy of Science 26 (1995), 73. “In his paper On the Mechanical Equivalent of Heat printed in the Philosophical Transactions[1] in 1850, Joule describes in detail the mechanical friction of fluids as the direct method for determining the mechanical equivalent of heat.”

Title, author and publication year are needed in the sentence, and a full citation appears in a footnote anchored at the journal title. Sibum needs to give titles and year here because the paper and its venue are important to his subject, and he needs to tell us how to find the item, using the journal’s usual format, in the footnote.

Specimen from Pearce & Simpson, “A recent survey of the current status of university natural history museums and collections in Australia,” Museums Australia National Conference 2010, 149: “The implementation of the recommendations has been variable (Simpson, 2001), with many university museums and collections still being perceived as non-essential services in the university’s goal of education (Wallace, 2002). Stanbury (2003), however, noted that the reviews had three important impacts…”

This passage contains three citations in two grammatical structures. The first two are glosses or asides; the third positions the author (Stanbury) as the sentence’s subject and agent. This gives Stanbury and his ideas far greater prominence; Simpson and Wallace provide backgrounding to the advances that Stanbury makes upon them. This is sometimes called ‘information prominent’ versus ‘author prominent.’ Making Stanbury prominent as author signals greater importance to the author’s study. It’s clearly the advances that matter in this paper.

Specimen from Brooks, Perry: Fact, Fiction, and Outcomes Assessment, Mid-Western Educational Research Association, 1998, 2: “Rodgers (1989) argued that ‘intellectual development is central to the primary purposes of higher education in the English, German, and American traditions…. It is the one form of development in which faculty and student affairs staff may have a common commitment, and it has wide application to practice in both domains’ (p. 143). Historically, intellectual and ethical development have been major goals of higher education in the attempt to produce well-rounded graduates (Moore, 1989).”

There are two citations, one of which is split into two parts showing a gap in what is included from the original text. The first part is blended into the sentence, while the second clings on as a loose and terminal appendage. The second citation is more typical. I presume from the text that Moore provides a history of educational purpose. Glancing at the bibliography, however, I see that the article’s title has nothing to do with history. I suspect that it’s an inappropriate source for the historical claim, a badly written title, or perhaps a mistake. As an author, you usually don’t want your readers to suspect your bona fides as early as page 2!

Also from Brooks, a triple-citation sentence on page 9, showing how to list progressions in the theory’s development: “In particular, three sets of researchers have developed what may be considered refinements of the Perry Scheme: Kitchener and King’s (1994) Reflective Judgment model, Belenkey, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s (186) Women’s Ways of Knowing, and Baxter Magolda’s (1992b) Ways of Knowing.”

Next is the whole of footnote 6 in Leboux, “Observation claims and epistemic confidence in Aristotle’s biology”, Isis 108 (2017), 261: “In the hearings, he would have phrased questions differently according to witnesses’ education level, notably by substituting vernacular for Latin terms. On the redaction of oral proceedings into written protocol see David Warren Sabean, “Peasant Voices and Bureaucratic Texts: Narrative Structure in Early Modern German Protocols,” in Little Tools of Knowledge, ed. Becker and Clark (cit. n. 1), pp. 67–93.”

The note glosses an idea in the main text, and is followed by a citation to background for that gloss. The citation is carried by a whole sentence that explains its own purpose, and also involves a cross-reference to an earlier citation.

The following sample is from Thoren, Lord of Uraniborg (New York: 1990), 111: “This relationship, which seems quite esoteric to the modern observer, would have been obvious to any painter, printer, architect, Philippist clergyman, or other learned person in Tycho’s day, including many of the kings and great aristocrats who were patrons of the Renaissance style.[2]”

The citation is compact and specific — common signs of reliability — but is in fact deceitful: the source does not relate to the claim made. But the same claim has been made by writers before Thoren; we might surmise that he merely copied his citations from others in lieu of careful research. It is used here to support a fantasy built on some very interesting, but ultimately fabricated, ideas on pages 106 and 108. Such deviance does have a positive side: upon realising that I could not rely on Thoren (and others who dream the same dream), I got a fun project out of developing something better. You can see here that I have built three citations to his book into this one paragraph.

The above examples suggest how a class on careful use of citation could be staged using examples and discussion. Could you see such a class being of benefit to the doctoral candidates who you support?

PS from Susan: Alistair has a knack of looking deeply with precision and then making practical suggestions. His idea here for a class on citation would teach high level artisanal skills with doctoral writing, I think. This post is not one to read through quickly. As editors, Claire, Cally and I haggled over whether we agreed always with how the citations worked, and I think opening up discussion in a class would be really helpful for collectively noticing the nuances of citation. That sort of analysis of how citation works would help people to be more purposeful with them as authors. So actually, I am likely to include this idea in the courses that I facilitate for academics who want to improve artisanal skills…what do you think?

[1] James Prescott Joule, ‘On the Mechanical Equivalent of Heat’, Philosophical Transactions (1850, Part I), read 21 June 1849. Reprinted The Scientific Papers, vol. 1 (London: Taylor and Francis, 1884), pp. 298–328.

[2] Wittkower, Architectural Principles, pp. 91–3.