The dos and don’ts of working with citations

Tatiana Carvalho
Nov 2 · 5 min read

Citing other people’s research, celebrating their findings, highlighting their errors, and building on their successes is largely regarded as the most civilized way of proposing alternatives and advancements to science, while avoiding plagiarism and respecting intellectual property and academic prestige.

Out of all the skills needed for writing scientific and clinical documentation, working with citations is probably the most unique and peculiar task of all. Similar to citing laws in a justice sentence, scientific documentation uses previously published results to validate the need for the current work at hand. However, the nature of scientific citing with its continuous evolution, updates, and the complexity of knowledge involved makes it a unique and valuable component of the skills required to be a scientific or medical writer.

If you are an experienced writer, go straight to doDOC helps you find the right reference and properly cite it.

Why do scientific and medical writers use citations?

The three main underlying reasons for citing previously published scientific works are (a) to avoid having to explain every detail of the state of the art of a given scientific topic, (b) to compare results obtained under similar or different scientific conditions, and (c ) to show the importance and validity of the topic in the scientific community, indicating that more people than just yourself are interested in the subject matter.

The decision on who to cite, however, can be more complex. The choices are (a) the most recent publication on the specific topic, (b) the most cited publication on the topic, and (c ) a publication that the author itself or its research group have previously written, in order to increase the citation rate and visibility of that publication.

Regardless, when it comes to writing scientific content, the common practice is to cite previous publications for any of the reasons enumerated above. A common question from young scientists is, “do I have to know absolutely everything that has been published about this topic?” The simple answer is “no.” As a scientist, you need to be up-to-date with the most recent advances in your field of interest. To achieve this, you need to read a lot of new articles. But you also need to read reviews, which are compendiums of findings published in many publication articles, explaining the state of the art of a given scientific field.

As you begin the writing process, you need to know enough about a subject to be able to search for previous publications that you will be citing in your work. In our experience working with scientific documentation, there are two main issues that arise when citing references:

  • Finding the right reference to cite
  • Properly citing that reference to avoid plagiarism

Finding the right reference to cite

Searching for a citation should not be taken lightly. Oftentimes, references are not something you search for once your work is complete, but quite the opposite: they are the inspiration for your work. In other words, after reading the approach followed by others in your field, you decided to change the conditions for your own research, and then measure, discuss, and publish your results. In this scenario, you very likely have a library of references for your work that you and your team have referred to. If you are a well-organized and experienced writer, this library is either an EndNote or Mendeley compendium of citations. On the other hand, if you lack the experience of a published writer, you may have a list of references in an MS Word document, a BibTeX file, or stored as plain text.

Putting your list of sources together and choosing the necessary references can be a challenging task on its own. However, you also need to search PubMed, Scopus, or any other search engines for the most up-to-date publications in your field of study. The next necessary step is combining all your references with the most recent versions.

If you haven’t given up yet, you are very close to having a complete reference library for your scientific document. That is until you send the document to the authors for their reviews, and they change all the references back to Word format because they don’t use EndNote.

EndNote and Mendeley help a lot when organizing your reference list, but keeping everything up to date is still a manual process. Keep in mind that they have no direct connection with PubMed or Scopus, two of the largest indexed databases for scientific and medical-related publications. In summary, collaborating without EndNote and Mendeley is not easy, but with them is not easy either!

Properly citing that reference to avoid plagiarism

Once you have all the references you want to include in your publication, you need to properly cite them within the context of your publication and display the information related to the authors and the specific publication you are citing, following the correct set of rules for that specific type of publication. The general idea is that you want to credit those authors for their work because either as an inspiration or as a comparison, they provided you with the necessary scientific guidance for your work; otherwise, you would be incurring plagiarism

Properly citing other people’s publications is often overlooked, resulting in unnecessary delays for publications or review cycles. The justification for improperly citing is that it is too difficult to know all the formatting rules for every component of information within citations. Books, articles, conferences, and webinars have different formats for displaying referencing information, including specific styles (bold, italic, underlined, etc.) for certain types of information.

Microsoft Word and EndNote can be useful tools for streamlining the formatting process, but most journals use a reference format that is not compatible with any of the standards available in either software, forcing authors to update the formatting manually.

doDOC helps you find the right reference and properly cite it

doDOC has a Reference Manager that enables you to mix and match references however you wish. It’s possible to import Word documents with Microsoft Word standard citations, Mendeley, or EndNote, but you can also import EndNote or BibTeX libraries, as well as search directly in Scopus or PubMed. This means you can pull references from any repository, and also create them manually, specifying all the meta-information according to the specific reference type.

doDOC also has a formatting engine that automatically formats all citations in your document and the reference list according to the specifications of the target journal, ensuring that the correct format is used in both cases. This doesn’t mean just changing the style, but also presenting the meta-information of every citation following the requirements of the journal you are targeting.

Next time you start the never-ending game of finding and correctly citing references, think of doDOC. Leave a comment below, sharing your experience with us.

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