Citing Sources

medical writingCiting Sources

by Dr. Brewer, ScienceDocs Editor and Writer

In scientific and other formal writing, it is crucial for authors to cite sources for ideas and facts that they did not discover or observe themselves.  Quite simply, citing sources correctly is about giving credit where credit is due. 

If we, as authors, do not cite our sources, why should anyone else?  If we don’t search the literature well and cite our sources, why should other authors pay attention to our work and cite it?

Apart from this fundamental “golden rule” of citation, there are other reasons why citing correctly helps authors.  First, authors can embarrass themselves by claiming something as new when it isn’t, or by ignoring clearly relevant ideas or findings. 

Second, authors’ literature search and citation practices reflect on their scholarship.  If an author neglects pertinent prior work or cites in a biased way, readers may well suspect that the author is lazy, careless, or unfair.  Readers might think the research the author reports is similarly flawed.  

Third, each scientific report, whether an article, book, or other publication, can be viewed as a stepping stone in the progress of science.  If a scientific report isn’t linked to the past properly, it becomes a stone out of reach from the others and does not help readers.  By making connections to relevant past work, authors also demonstrate their knowledge of the science underlying their work. 

We can improve our citation practices by following six principles.

Cite original sources

Strive to cite the first work describing a particular idea or result.  The original conceiver or discoverer naturally deserves the most credit.  Keep in mind that sometimes, the author(s) popularly perceived as the “first” is, in fact, not the first.  It’s always good to correct the historical record, if possible, no matter how many generations of scientists have misidentified the original source. 

Appreciate history

Some authors and editors artificially limit the scope of their literature searches and citations to very recent work, such as the previous 5 or 10 years.  Even in fast developing fields, there often is older work that is pertinent and deserves mention.  Authors are wise to consider citing relevant work no matter when it was published. 

Cite representatively

It is easy to skew a reader’s impression of past research by citing some and not other work.  Too often authors cite selectively—“cherry picking” their sources—perhaps to promote, consciously or unconsciously, a particular view.   Some authors find it hard to cite their rivals, researchers whom they do not like, or work with different results than their own. 

Despite these impulses, it is possible to develop more balanced citation habits.  Treat citing sources as any other scientific task, such as making observations: dispassionately, focused solely on the facts and not emotions.  Take it as a challenge to cite rivals or those whom you dislike.  If prior results or opinion are mixed, cite all sides.  When writing and citing, it can be helpful to imagine whether a critic might consider the sources we cite as representative, and adjust accordingly. 

Cite accurately

Many of my colleagues and I have found that many, if not most, citations our work receives are inaccurate.  That is, other authors credit us with findings and ideas that we did not describe, and surprisingly often cite our work to support points that our work directly contradicts.  Such citations are cancers on the web of scientific knowledge and reflect poorly on the citing authors.  It is better not to cite at all than cite incorrectly. 

Cite according to content, not prestige

Ideally, our decisions about which works to cite should rest on their content alone.  The prestige of the author or journal, or the type of publication (such as journal article, book, book chapter, thesis, dissertation, unpublished report, etc.) are irrelevant.  Some authors use citations as political tools, to curry favor with reviewers and editors, or align themselves with one group of researchers or another.  While such tactics are not inherently bad, they are probably more prone to biased citation than an approach focused on ideas and evidence. 

Cite reviews

Typically, we have limited space in which to discuss and cite previous work.  When describing prior empirical research, it is best to cite comprehensive meta-analyses or systematic reviews, or if these are not available, narrative reviews, instead of individual reports.  Not only do such reviews reduce the number of works cited (which is important if we cannot exceed a certain number of references in a report), but reviews provide the most reliable summary of the corresponding research. 

By citing appropriately, we can project professionalism and serve readers.  Get credit for giving credit!

 

soical science editor

Learn more about ScienceDocs Editor Dr. Bewer

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