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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Citation Failure

Bob Basil's first post came yesterday. He offers a fresh perspective, complementary to my own but a bit different in tone.


Citation failure occurs when authors cite a text to support a claim, but in an incomplete or confusing way. Take this example from Twale & De Luca, Faculty Incivility:
Knowledge and acceptance are prerequisites to claiming any power and authority over other members of the culture (Eagleton, 2000; Said, 1993). Without recognition of the power it takes to eradicate a bully culture, it will prevail. Culture is insular and molds its members so much that when they are steeped too heavily in it, the culture blinds them to all other things. Culture may be so engrained by the majority of members as to go unnoticed by them, but it will surely be reflected in the actions of new entrants and subversives who have not fully embraced the culture (Bourdieu, 1977). [p. 96]

Putting aside the infelicitous writing, the mixed metaphors and stylistic tone-deafness, I'd like to focus on the citation practice. The first thing I notice is that the first claim is very general, almost uncontroversial, yet also imprecise. Knowledge of what? Acceptance of what, or by whom? Secondly, both Eagleton and Said are credited with this insight. Looking to the bibliography, I see that these are not academic articles, but entire books. So Terry Eagleton, at some point in his 2000 book The Idea of Culture, lends support to this idea, as does Edward Said, at some point in his book Culture and Imperialism. There are no page numbers, so a reader would have to judge whether these claims are supported by looking holistically at these books. "Bourdieu 1977" is also an entire book. Here the claim is a little more specific, but how and where and to what end does Bourdieu make this claim, in his book Outline of a Theory of Practice? Do the authors of this study on academic bullying really understand Said and Bourdieu, or are they just name-dropping? How do the claims Twale and De Luca make on their own in this paragraph relate to the claims attributed to their cited references?

A fifteen page list of references seems to add scholarly gravitas to this work, but citation failure this pervasive undermines this impression--especially for a reader like myself who is somewhat familiar with the ideas of Said, Eagleton, and Bourdieu. To be fair, I should point out that not all the references in this book are this sloppy, only a few I've checked so far. I wouldn't want to be an academic bully!

So what is the correct path to successful citation? First, the claim itself must be specific and concrete, something distinctive. Secondly, the reader must have the tools to find specific support for the claim in the cited source. A page number perhaps. You can cite the entire article with no page numbers, if you are citing the central claim of that article. You could even get away with citing an entire book with no page numbers, if you were referring to the central argument of that book and made it clear what that argument is. A 200-page book will contain many sets of claims.

You can either cite directly, taking language from your source verbatim, or paraphrase. If there is direct discourse, a page number is obligatory. If you paraphrase a specific claim, you also need a page number or numbers, unless, by implication, the claim is that of an entire article.

I've seen this loose style of citation more in some less rigorous branches of the social sciences than in my own field, but I still think it is instructive to look at weak examples--as opposed to more subtle ones where citation failure is more a matter of nuance.

See also this post by Thomas that also addresses some issues related to the rigor of citations. I read his post before writing my own and owe some of my interest in this topic to him.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Yes, this is a favourite topic of mine. See these posts and this one.

The habit of citing whole works for vague claims is one that is worth working out of one's style early. I like the way I put it in one of those posts: a reference is always an implicit claim about the work you are citing. Try to rewrite the sentence to make that claim:

Said (1993) argued that knowledge and acceptance are prerequisites to claiming any power and authority over other members of the culture. Eagleton (2000) agreed.

Notice the words "argued" and "agree" here. There are dozens of alternatives (showed, demonstrated, proved, suggested, believed). Also, notice that we have been forced to account for connection between the Said text and Eagleton text.