References are not that important

I’m increasingly of the opinion that academic references are not as important as we make out.

We spend a vast amount of effort teaching students how to Do It Right, from Level 1/introductory undergraduate courses all the way up to PhDs. And one of the major pieces of work in producing journal articles (beyond the writing and refereeing) is checking and fixing the references so they are all perfectly correct and in the journal style. All the way through we’re spending lots of energy and time making sure that the references are just so.

But I don’t think it matters – or at least, not as much as we act as if it does. Consistency and style are important, and help give a professional impression. But really, the function of a reference is to enable the reader to follow up the reference. It doesn’t have to be perfectly correct if it’s a human-readable reference – just unambiguous.

(cc) *saxon* on Flickr

Getting a hyperlink dead right is important – but there are hardly any problems with those, because everyone just cuts and pastes them. There is one format that works everywhere. Whereas for a human-readable citation there are at least twelve widely-used citation styles, which in practice are applied slightly differently in different contexts. So a cut-and-paste isn’t good enough: you have to transform all the citations in to a single style, and the one required by the context for which you’re writing.

Software systems promise to make this easy, but my experience is that it’s taking more, not less effort to manage references since the early 90s when BibTeX solved the problem (for people who can use BibTeX easily). My guess is that in disciplines where LaTeX papers are the norm, there’s less of an issue. Another point to support Patrick McAndrew’s case that Word and other WYSIWYG word processors have seriously impeded academic writing.

When I’m following a reference, I’d much rather have a DOI or a hyperlink to a full text copy than any ‘correctness’ of citation. I can just click – and I’m there. And if there’s no hyperlink, I can just use Google Scholar on the most identifying part of the reference (unusual title, author names, whatever) and be at the paper in seconds. It really doesn’t matter whether the journal title is in italics or not, or whether the paper title is in double or single quotes, or whether I get an issue number, page numbers, or neither (in most cases).

It used to be really helpful to have a proper, full reference. Volume numbers, for instance, were pretty handy if you wanted to locate a paper – it would tell you which tome to grab from the groaning library shelf. Page numbers, too – it’s much faster to simply turn to page 2323 than to hunt down the right issue contents page, then scan to find the page reference, and then turn to page 2323. But that’s just not how most people find references these days.

So I don’t think references are as important as we make them out to be.

Referencing, of course, is a different matter. It actually is really important in academic writing to show clearly what is your contribution and what it is you’re picking up from elsewhere, and where you’re getting it from. And this is more, not less important in a fast-moving digitised world.

I think our time would be better spent if we diverted some of the effort we currently spend on the fiddly references stuff to getting better at the proper and clear referencing stuff.

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

12 thoughts on “References are not that important”

  1. Doug — I agree with you. I’ve never used Endnote or the other offline bibliographic tools. But I have found Zotero ( invaluable — in fact it’s become the thing that locks me into Firefox.

    1. Don’t get me started on Endnote – for me it’s the worst piece of software ever. There’s loads and loads of software that’s obviously of lower quality and unsuitable for purpose, but there’s much less risk of you investing time and energy in to it, only to find that it doesn’t quite work in some crucial and time-sink way. I’ve spent ages helping out colleagues, friends and students with it.

      I keep thinking of getting back to using online bibliographic tools – RefWorks, CiteULike, Mendeley and others have grabbed my attention at some point in time, as well as Zotero – but I’m still not convinced that they are worth the effort. But I could be wrong.

  2. Couldn’t agree more Doug and at the last international plagiarism conference the great Jude Carroll agreed with you too. There has been a focus on method and technicality and not the essence if acknowledging the work of others or learning to interpret their work in a students own understanding. This hasn’t been helped by the increase in the use of systems like Turnitin which now encourages students to use their own service (write check) as a often as a spelling and grammar checking tool. I was helping teach some first year undergraduates about referencing last week and the bibliographic index systems have never looked so antiquated and out dated. Google scholar just works, why use anything else?!

  3. I agree that it’s not that important although it drives the CDO (I like to put it in alphabetical order) side of me wild when people do them badly. A real scourge is people who use crap software to store them and glue them into BiBTeX. It’s inevitably a god awful mess which I have to sort out. Still, I’m amazed you actually *teach* about referencing. I’ve never been taught it and when I’ve been more or less aware of what is taught I’ve never been anywhere that teaches it.

    1. a god awful mess which I have to sort out

      This is the sort of unnecessary work that is less important than the effort we spend on it, I think. How much of that sorting out is cosmetic, and how much of it is chasing down references that are so poor that they’re non-trivial to find?

      Iā€™m amazed you actually *teach* about referencing.

      We’re the OU, we teach *everything*. šŸ™‚ Except where closed shops won’t let us (e.g. medicine).

      It varies from module to module (course to course in old money), but if you follow the pathway to one of our degree qualifications you’ll end up having covered it at some point, and usually will have built it up from introductory to full Honours degree level. It’s certainly in IET’s own MA ODE, and it’s in the PhD Skills stuff too.

      1. Ah, no, I mean the kind of mess where EndNote et al are so bloody awful at doing it that the title and author’s name have become confused or everything is capitalised or details which are irrelevant are included. Basically I’m not picky about chapter volume etc but the references should be internally consistent. Otherwise it has the same category as a spelling error — it’s not a flaw with the paper itself but it’s an expression of sloppiness and careless writing that a referee will pick up on.

  4. Interesting and thoughtful piece, thank you for it. I both agree and disagree.

    I spent much of last week correcting other people’s references for a book I was co-editing, so I feel quite strongly on the subject! I think good referencing is a sign of good academic practice, in particular that the author has actually read the source rather than just citing it because other people do. It also provides you with a way of finding the original. I’m not very bothered about the detail of commas, bolding of volume numbers etc; but I do care very much that the author provides me with enough information that I can read a particular quote in the original. That can really matter sometimes. Google Scholar helps a great deal (and Google Books), but not everything is there for one reason or another.

    And unless I see a page number for a quotation (especially in a book) I’m not convinced enough that something’s where the author says it is. In recent weeks, I’ve seen two examples of purported quotations, in quote marks and everything, with incomplete references. I followed both up (they were both interesting quotes), and neither was where the author said they were. One case was in Wikipedia, which you should never trust as verbatim anyway; but the other was from an eminent academic. And in both cases, the faulty quote had spread elsewhere.

    So good referencing has its purpose, though what’s good is not necessarily following the letter of the OU Harvard style guide.

    1. Yes – I think we agree more than we disagree.

      The good referencing I think you’re talking about is the stuff that I think is more important, and not as well done as it should be. Much better to spend the time as you did, verifying the references, than fussing over missing full stops after years and the like.

      Internal consistency – as Richard Clegg above points out – is an important part of presentational quality, like spelling and punctuation. But I don’t think the details of, say, OU Harvard style versus APA versus ACS or whatever really don’t matter that much.

  5. As someone who recently submitted an academic essay, and shortly afterward woke from a nightmare that I had completed the references incorrectly, this is a timely article!

    I do rather feel that perfect referencing takes up far too much time (I’m terrible at it), and seems to be unecessary nit-picking.

  6. Coming from a mathematics background, I’ve always been a bit baffled by the obsession with referencing formats in the social sciences as it was a complete non-issue when writing up mathematics research. Maybe because everybody used BibTex, everybody just got the formats effortlessly correct, or maybe journals just sorted out any incorrect formatting on behalf of authors? It was certainly something that I don’t recall ever devoting any mental energy to.

    1. Part of my frustration with all this fiddling is that in my head it’s been a solved problem since the early 90s once LaTeX2e was widespread and ‘everyone’ who did their own papers used BibTeX. No problems. Until Word became ubiquitous in my field. We’re still not back there – except in the places where submission in LaTeX is the norm.

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