References and Referencing

Every profession has its mysteries, which in times past would have been just that – mysterious in order to perplex the uninitiated and protect the status of the professional. In more modern times one might be cynical and say that this is still the case (to create a ‘them and us’ culture). In some instances at least, I believe that it is much more boring: a tool, albeit mental or procedural rather than physical, that is learned, perhaps by rote, in order to make life easier. I’d like to say that Referencing is one of those, and approximately 90 % of the time it is – but then there is the other 10 %…we’ll come back to that later. I had intended today’s post to be much more workmanlike and less philosophical so let us proceed apace and look at the 90% first.

References serve a number of purposes. Not least, they show that you have tackled the existing literature and you have weighed and compared what you have found. (In some areas you might be lucky to find a double handful of sources; in some, injudicious key words will see you drowning in thousands of references, sometimes orders of magnitude more). They may provide you with very explicit information which may, perhaps, influence your methodology. Crucially though, a reference is how you acknowledge that you are following a particular path, on which are other travellers. Where it gets interesting in an academic field is that not only do you have to acknowledge your debt to another, you have to show other people how to find the reference you used so that they can check the original source – they may interpret it differently, or they may require further details that you did not need to include in your own work, or they might need a ‘grandparent’ reference.

So, when you acknowledge the influence or information provided by another researcher, you need to provide a way of presenting the information in a consistent and meaningful way. This is the reference and this is where we come back to the other 10 %. You would have thought that referencing would be completely standardised, but you’d be wrong. I cannot even begin to understand why there are as many different referencing styles as there are, but there are times when it seems as though every journal and every other institution has their own. This makes it problematic when trying to collect together all the information that you need – if you end up writing a number of papers in one field, but the papers all go to different journals, chances are you will need subtly different information, or the same information in different formats for all of these. Reference management software has come on a great deal in the last few years, and there several very useful comparisons that can be found easily via your favoured search engine.

As a side note, I would be wary of over reliance on software management, especially when inserting references in to the text. My experience of this (and people incorporating live links for tables and figures) is that it is a good way to mess up your day, or someone else’s, when the file becomes corrupted or something changes slightly: Error, code not found.

A further digression, drifting further into the philosophical, concerns the DOI. Digital Object Identifiers are the norm for any new papers; these are essentially a permanent live link to a specific paper. Journals are trying to ensure that their old publications are available, so these too receive DOIs. It is also possible to give a DOI to any piece of information that you have a way of making accesssible on the web, which begs the question: will traditional references be necessary in the future? I suspect they will, because there is a lot of information contained in the reference, some of which allows you to decide whether or not to proceed further. But who knows? It will be interesting to see how this develops!

Returning to the scheduled programme, your institution will have a favoured referencing style: typically this will be a variation on either a Harvard or a Numbered style. With the former, you include the name and year in the text e.g. The A to Z challenge is one of the greatest blog events of the year (Bloggs, 2015). Or you might write ‘Bloggs (2015) has stated that…’. In the reference list, at the end (which, by the way, should not have a numbered section heading) the references are then presented in alphabetical order. Should you be emphasising a point with more than one reference in the text then put them in chronological order. One thing that is worth noting, especially if you have any choice in referencing, or if you are trying to write several documents at once requiring different forms of referencing, the required style will affect how you write what it is you want to say. There are some things that sound incredibly stilted or even ridiculous if your phrase them in a way inconguent with your referencing system.

As a final thought, as an undergraduate, someone a year ahead told me that undergraduates read references, Masters level read the references of the references, and PhDs read the references of the references of the references. Looking back, this is a slightly naive view, albeit one with a germ of truth. As with my post on Length, this is one area in which there will be a great deal of variation between disciplines, and some specific projects will stray even further from a rule of thumb, but a doctoral level thesis can expect to include several hundred references. Managing these is no mean feat, but if given the choice, Harvard is much better for this – your numbering doesn’t get messed up every time you add a new reference. The references that you choose need to ‘carry their weight’: you will be selecting the most important from perhaps a 1000 or more that you have looked at. Reference management software can help you – but it can also make your life much harder, especially when you email your manuscript to others for review.

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