Why are citations important in research writing?

It’s not just about distributing credit where it’s due

The sociologist Robert Merton wrote perceptively about citations:

[T]he institutionalized practice of citations and references in the sphere of learning is not a trivial matter. [Readers] located outside the domain of science and scholarship may regard the lowly footnote or the remote endnote or the bibliographic parenthesis as a dispensable nuisance .. [But] these are in truth central to the [academic] incentive system and an underlying sense of distributive justice, that do much to energize the advancement of knowledge

Yet the significance of citations goes far beyond energizing and rewarding scientific and academic competition, and for PhDers and early career researchers it is worth briefly enumerating these rationales somewhat more.

All academic research and argument has seven essential characteristics. It is formally stated. Each work contributes to an advanced and specialist conversation. And academic work tackles difficult issues. It forms part of a cumulative and collegial endeavour. Research is evidence-based, and its provenance can always be checked. Research is also demanding and consistent in assessing empirical ‘facts’. All these features mean that referencing and citing are vital components of academic practice. The decisions that scientists and academics make about including or not including citations to support their arguments play a very important role in conditioning how their colleagues regard and evaluate their work. The Figure below unpacks a bit further the reasons why citations are so important, set against the seven criteria mentioned above.

Better appreciating the multiple roles of citations should help authors in discipline groups where chronic under-citation is a curiously seductive and hard-to-eradicate form of academic self-harm — the humanities (especially) and many social sciences. It is simply unacceptable scientific or academic behaviour now to ignore immediately relevant research or argument already in the public domain just because it does not help your case, or suit your style of work, or comes from a different discipline.

In the digital era the argument above also makes clear that open access sources should always be the primary reference sources, relegating paywalled sources to secondary status. Linking to OA texts whenever available is consistent with the scientific and academic mission, whereas referencing only paywalled sources is clearly restrictive. Perhaps, as the years pass by, even the authors of the badly out of date style guides still being issued by professional bodies like the APA and MLA will begin to take note.

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