Academic Citation

One of my New Year’s blogolutions was to clear out my to-blog folder, and bring closure to my unfinished drafts by simply posting them as-is. This is one of those drafts. Disorganized paragraphs, unfinished sentences, and general incoherence enhance the natural character and beauty of a half-written blog post and should not be considered flaws or defects.

Draft date: April 18, 2008

There’s a related discussion happening now at All of My Faults Are Stress-Related.

So far, the part of scientific paper-writing I hate the most – I mean, apart from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over various issues related to the actual science – is proofreading the bibliography. I use BibDesk for my auto-bibliography reference management magic, but I have yet to encounter a BibTeX style sheet that works perfectly without human post-processing. So I manually tweak and triple-check my reference list. It makes my eyeballs leak ichor.

But it’s got me thinking about the purpose of academic citation.

  • Provide a true record of your intellectual labor – where did your ideas actually come from?

These are basically self-centered. That’s fine for undergraduates, who still need to learn to find and evaluate information. Students who get information from the intriguing depths of their own navels will require a different kind of lesson than students who use Wikipedia when they are supposed to be reading journal articles.

In some consulting projects citation takes on an argumentative dimension. Especially when you’re facing a pack of lawyers you want to show that your analysis is based on established professional practice, that your techniques have been peer-reviewed, and that disinterested authorities in the field would do things the same way. Citation is effectively an appeal to authority.

Scientific papers are not really meant to be a true and complete record of how you developed an idea. That’s why you don’t see papers beginning with “We initially set out to test X, but something went horribly wrong. However, we have salvaged from the mess a couple of wishy-washy calculations pertinent to Y.” or “We were in the field looking for Z, but found a bunch of Q and got distracted”.

  • Put your work in context, by explaining how it builds upon and differs from what others have done to address similar questions.
  • Give proper credit to people who “own” the ideas you are using. This is why it’s often appropriate to keep citing an older “breakthrough” paper, instead of or in addition to more recent work.
  • Give the reader enough information to follow up on your ideas
  • Dirty politics. Dr. Aggrandizer has an annoying habit of sending copies of vaguely-related papers to anyone who fails to cite her work, Dr. Friend is up for tenure soon and could use the boost to her impact factor, Dr. Nasty will sabotage your career if you don’t placate her enormous ego.

My instinct is to put my work in context by citing recent reviews, or related papers that have well-written introductions.

I cite people for various reasons:

  • Showing the reader that my result is consistent with others’ results, and therefore it can be trusted.
  • Making that all-important transition from “butt number” to “justified butt number” – I haven’t actually measured the thermal conductivity of soil at my field site, what is a reasonable range of possible values?


  1. Barry Leiba wrote:

    An interesting part of this discussion is why one doesn’t cite a particular paper, in addition to why one does. One has to be reasonable selective in one’s citations — putting in appropriate citations without going overboard. When I review papers, I take a very dim view of “citation whores”, who appear to think that if they cite every paper ever written (and particularly every paper by those they think are likely to be reviewing theirs), their paper is more likely to be accepted (after all, if you cite my paper and your paper is accepted, my citation count goes up, yay).

    The most bizarre case I’ve encountered of someone not citing my paper was when I was asked to review a paper that was essentially identical (exactly the same points and results) to one I’d presented at a conference two years earlier (though, clearly, not as well written, ahem…). And they cited three other papers from that conference, so they obviously knew about mine. They clearly couldn’t cite mine without making it blazingly obvious that they had nothing new to say. But how could they think the omission wouldn’t be noticed? [My review said that if they’d been updating my results, that would be very appropriate given the two years since, and I would be pleased to accept it. But since they had nothing to add, no, I recommended a strong reject.]

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