Manuscript preparation: four citation mistakes


«When examiners read dissertations and reviewers read papers, they are always aware of in-text citations. They don’t necessarily look for them but they see them. They will almost always pick up the four most common citation mistakes – if they are present. And if these citations are problematic and numerous, reviewers and examiners may well leap to the conclusion that the writer hasn’t done enough careful reading. They have been cavalier with the work of other scholars. They may even decide that the writer is unscholarly or that the writing and scholarship is «sloppy». They have cited for appearance’s sake rather than from a deep understanding of their field», writes science blogger Pat Thomson and goes on to cite 4 citation mistakes to avoid.

Citation mistake No. 1. Attributing a common idea in the field to a particular person

Most fields have categories and ideas that are common parlance. For instance in social science the notion of social class is ubiquitious. But lots of people have used the term in different ways. So it is important not to cite the term «social class» per se but to say which interpretation you are using, what the interpretation is and why you’ve chosen it. So I might write something like «The category of social class is commonly used in social science. There are x common approaches to social class (1) etc …».

Citation mistake No. 2. Attributing an idea to a user not a source

If you connect an idea to a person via a citation, you are saying that this is where the idea or category or data comes from. Not that this is where you read about it.

It’s always important to attribute correctly. If you are dealing with something that a load of scholars have discussed then you need to cite with an e.g. If you are referencing an idea, category or phrase that did unequivocally originate with someone in particular, then you need to cite that person, not the other people who have used their work. The implication is that you need to know the provenance of ideas.

So when you go to cite someone you have to check that they are not attributing the idea to someone else or to a corpus of literature. And if it is clear that they got the idea, term or data from somewhere else, then you need to go back to the original text and make sure that you cite the idea correctly. If you can see that the idea has changed in its usage, then you might want to explain the shift in meaning in the text or in a footnote, depending how crucial the idea, term or category is to your research.

If you want to refer to something for which there is an authoritative source – say population data or the results of a survey – then you need to find the original and cite that, and not the scholar or news item where you first read about it.

If you frequently cite borrowers and users of an idea, data or category – as in (Marx date in Smith date), reviewers and examiners will get sniffy about your scholarship. They may well ask you to go back and find the original. «What stopped you reading Marx for yourself?» – they may well ask.

Citation mistake No. 3. Referencing a minor comment

When you are writing you need to reference and work with the words of scholars whose interest is the same as yours. In other words, you want to engage with sources and papers whose major focus is the same topic that you are addressing. It’s always possible to find papers where the issue you are dealing with is mentioned in passing. So there are lots of papers that mention social class but it’s not the main thing that they focus on. The in-passing reference is not particularly helpful to you anyway. You need to read, use and cite work that speaks seriously and in depth with your own. You need to take the time to get beyond the paper that makes a passing sentence or paragraph to the papers that discuss your topic in detail and in depth. Then use and cite them. Don’t reference the paper with your interest as a side issue.

Citation mistake No. 4. Putting incompatible bedfellows together

If you are discussing a particular topic where there is a lot already written, it is tempting to add one of those long strings of references which show quantity, or perhaps works written over a particular period. Doing this carries the risk of suggesting commonality between texts where there is little. I could easily write a sentence saying that social class is frequently discussed in relation to poverty and then add a string of names and debates. When I do this, and say no more, I have textually suggested that there are no significant differences between the writers. That there is nothing more to be said about the ways in which each of the scholars referenced have used and discussed social class. The point here is to be more specific. Rather than simply saying that truck loads have been written about social class in relation to poverty, you need to go on to spell out the major trends in the ways in which the relationship between class and poverty has been understood. And put people in their shared interpretation groupings. When reviewers and examiners read long strings of undifferentiated references they are likely to ask whether you are glossing over important debates and differences.

Source: https://patthomson.net/2021/12/06/citation-blues-1-4/

When citing other works, don't forget to check your own citations as well.

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