By Sam Grinsell |

To students, academia’s insistence on citation can seem confusing and overly rigid. Why should their essays be accompanied by crawling ant-like footnotes or a string of bracketed names and dates? The deeper one goes into the world of research, however, the more compelling citation practices become. This post is a brief attempt to explain to people outside academia why we care so much about clear citing.

It’s not all about plagiarism

Most UK universities use the textual analysis software TurnItIn to check assignments for signs of plagiarism. The most obvious reason to include accurate references, from a student’s point of view, is to avoid plagiarism, but there is really much more to it than this. Indeed, this attitude can distract from why we really cite other scholars. Plagiarism is the great academic crime, not because it goes against some technical notion of citation but because it undermines the effective exchange of ideas. Without clear citations, how can we understand where a scholar’s ideas come from? The process of checking citations to pin down the origins of particular data or lines of argument can reveal unexpected links or peculiar leaps of logic. It is only by checking the citation that we can be sure the writer has fairly described the research she cites.

Who’s who?

Perhaps the thing that citations do most obviously for researchers and most opaquely for students is to signal the intellectual field in which the author is writing. If I see a new article in my field, imperial architecture, I can skim the references to understand how the author is positioning themselves in relation to existing work: are they citing postcolonial theory extensively, or mostly the work of architectural historians? Do they mention case studies from across the globe or only those concerning the region they are writing about? All of these things tell me something about the type of research contribution that is being presented, and about how this scholar thinks of the field in which we work.

Unfortunately, we do not generally make clear to students that these things are active choices. In writing my thesis, there are acknowledged experts who I have to mention, but the majority of people I cite do not quite fall into this category. There are theoretical texts that I find useful in constructing my argument, but which are not necessarily directly connected to my work. There are case studies from other regions that have a methodology which has influenced me. A scholar versed in my kind of research could gain a quick understanding of my interests by looking through my references. But for a student most of that work is hidden: their reading lists are handed down from their lecturers, and in the age of electronic content they may never have sought out texts on library shelves, thus missing out on the experience of discovering the related works that sit next to the recommended ones but did not make it onto the list.

In groups and out groups

These citation choices do not take place in a bubble, and when it comes to publication part of the role of reviewers is to question whether authors have carefully considered all relevant research. Given that, as I have outlined above, citation choices are somewhat idiosyncratic and signal the disciplinary positioning of the author, this puts journals in a position of power where reviewers and editors can act as gatekeepers to maintain disciplinary norms. This has been particularly of interest to scholars from marginalised groups, who seek to introduce new kinds of community through their citation practices. An example of this kind of writing can be found Kathryn Maude’s article ‘Citation and marginalisation: the ethics of feminism in Medieval Studies‘, Journal of Gender Studies 2014. There’s not space here to go into detail on this, but it is clear that who and what we cite is a part of what kind of research we produce, and that this is an area ripe for disciplinary controversy.

One of the obvious changes that happens in all disciplines over time is the replacement of classic texts with newer works. In some fields such as educational technology this can be very rapid, in history it is generally pretty slow. Nonetheless, in every field one of the discussions to be had is which texts will continue to be respected and influential, and which will be viewed as obsolete, and one of the ways this process happens is through scholars’ choices on who they cite and who they ignore. New researchers will be picking up the latest readings from their discipline (and elsewhere) while older scholars may feel that established works are being forgotten. The way this tension is handled is part of what gives a discipline its particular character: does it have rival schools of thought? Is it fractured into sub-disciplines with different methodologies? To what extent (and in what ways) do these different groups cite each other?

End note

There is a lot happening in out footnotes, endnotes, and in text citations. (I haven’t even gone into the choices between these!) But a lot of this meaning, of this active conversation, is hidden from people without the scholarly training to read the links. This is a particular problem in how we communicate with students about out disciplines, because without an understanding of these citation practices they cannot effectively analyse scholarly links or begin to critique the way we present our fields to them. Further, without this kind of explanation of the deep importance of citation in constructing scholarly knowledge and communities, it is hard for them to think of references as any more than a mechanism by which we avoid plagiarism. I hope that pulling our footnotes out for some examination has made you think more about who and how you cite.

Sam Grinsell is in the second year of a PhD on British imperial architecture in the Nile valley. He is Deputy Chair of Pubs and Publications.

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