Choosing citations and references: a communications view

Daniel Gile

27 December 2006


The primary role of citations in academic writing is to indicate what sources in the literature an author used in conducting his/her study. In this evidence role, citations are part of the data provided to the reader, along with other information.

            Citations also have sociological functions associated with alliances and struggles between individuals and groups in a given academic field. This text is not concerned with them. Rather, it stresses aspects of the communication function of citations in academic texts.

In some cases, authors of scholarly publications may wish to indicate references not so much to show what sources they have drawn upon, but more to indicate sources which readers could turn to in order to gain further information. This reader-oriented function changes priorities, and may lead authors to select as references not the texts they used in their study but texts which intended readers will find easier to access and/or easier to understand because they are written in a certain language, present ideas and facts in particularly clear way, are easier to find in libraries or can be downloaded from the Web, etc. This can lead to the selection of secondary rather than primary texts, including translations, to extracts rather than full texts, to reviews of and comments on theories and empirical studies rather than original reports (incidentally, in quantitative citation analysis, this can hide the real impact of authors of original theories and studies and lead to overestimations of the impact of authors of books which review them but do not contribute their own theories or empirical studies). In the same mindset, authors may also prefer to cite a restricted number of selected references, hoping that other things being equal, their references are more likely to be consulted than items in a longer, more comprehensive list.

            Such a communication function is partly at odds with the evidence function of citations as explained above. Citing an original text in a less accessible language may provide the necessary evidence with respect to the author’s work but will not allow readers to access the reference; citing a translation or review paper 10 years younger than the original will provide access to readers but will be weaker in establishing the credibility of the citing text’s author. What is worse, it may mislead readers into believing a theory is more recent than it is and give them an incorrect view of the historical development of the field.

It is sometimes difficult to choose between the two functions. In some cases, two lists of references are given, one of items used, and one of recommended texts, but this is not always encouraged or even possible due to space limitations. On the whole, in original contributions, and in particular in theses and dissertations, the evidence function is more important, whereas in reviews, discussions, didactic texts and presentations before audiences with limited access to the literature, the communication function may take precedence. Markers of communication-oriented references such as “see a review in Snell-Hornby 2006”, “a recent account of theory X can be found in ….” etc. can be helpful in avoiding misunderstandings.