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Importance Of Referencing In Academic Essays

Learning to use citation effectively is a must for any student wishing to attain top marks. No first-rate essay omits citation. No matter how incisive your own ideas may be, from an academic stand point, they can only gain from the backing of appropriate sources. Luckily, when writing a piece of academic prose, the modern student is at a huge advantage. This is because they have unprecedented access to a vast wealth of critical information, scholarly resources of all kinds, which can be used as building blocks in student composition. Citation, therefore, is of the first importance because it permits you to stand on the shoulders of textual giants; and this gives you a great boon. If you can support your own views with an aptly chosen quote from Chomsky, a philosophical insight from de Beauvoir, or a timely apothegm from Nietzsche, then your argument is going to command more authority. This is because you are effectively borrowing the relevant source’s critical standing in order to lend weight and credibility to your own. This interplay between current and former scholarly texts is central to critical writing. Academic work is a continuum; each scholarly texts builds upon precursors, and your own efforts are no different. Think of citation, then, as the linking glue that joins your critical writing to precursor works. In light of this convention, the best course of action is to utilise citation to maximum effect (and thus achieve better grades).

Citation affords a valuable opportunity to invest your essay with more definitive, colourful, or contentious content than you would otherwise be able to. As long as you make sure the people you cite are reputable scholarly sources (Wikipedia absolutely will not do), there is no restriction on what you may use. Of course, one needs to be discriminating; you do not want to fill your essay with other people’s voices, crowding out your own. Rather, see each citation as placing a capstone on your personal ideas and insights. Citation should function to amplify, reinforce or underline, not replace, the student’s own analyses. Hence there is a delicate economy at play when it comes to citing sources and this takes a little time to internalise. Keeping citations brief and to the point is the primary objective, here; you want citations to have a summative function, capturing the essence of the point in discussion. Usually, therefore, an apt citation will take the form of declarative statement or assertion; it will have a conclusive overtone, answering as opposed to asking a question. Naturally, these are not hard and fast rules; they are provisional guidelines and may be broken where and when occasion demands. Familiarise yourself with effective use of citation by reading other academic texts. Try and figure out how and why certain citations have the effect they do, always bearing in mind the overall scholarly intention. Patterns will soon become apparent.

The most effective way of compiling sources is to gather a pool of citations from which to draw. Best practice is to note down any relevant quotes you come across during the research stage, so that you have a reservoir to hand, a vital critical resource. Then, as you compose your essay and your argument unfolds, natural junctures for these quotations will suggest themselves. For instance, say we are writing about Political Realism. We might open thus: Political Realism is a movement that emphasises the importance of hard power and state self-interest as opposed to soft power and international cooperation. This is our own definition, which is fine; however, we consolidate this perspective if we succeed it with a relevant citation. Here, an apt quote from proto-realist Machiavelli serves nicely, which we would frame thus: This kind of thinking was tersely captured by Machiavelli when he observed that, for a political ruler, “it is far safer to be feared than loved”. Note the summative tone of the citation; it narrows rather than broadens the focus. What we have done in this instance is underlined our own observation (defining realism) with a pithy assertion from a well-known source. Machiavelli’s observation gets the point across very directly and with an idiomatic tenor that would not be appropriate for us to use; as a citation, however, this is just the kind of offering we want. It adds verbal colour to the text without diverting the critical substance into an inappropriate register. Hence we have balanced various textual priorities to specific effect, expanding on our point while at the same time narrowing focus.

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The proper acknowledgement of sources might seem like a no-brainer, as indeed it should, to a scientist, and yet there are altogether too many instances where improper attribution goes unchecked.

Sir Isaac Newton’s famous words in a l675 letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” may serve as a pithy reminder that even the most famous scientists depended on their forebears.

But, in fact, it is even inadequate because Newton did not explicitly name those giants. (As a historical aside, Newton’s comment was not as benign in intent as the words might indicate. The two men had been embroiled in a bitter dispute over certain optical discoveries and the handsome upper-class Newton was likely taking a dig at his lower-class rival’s physical deformity. Regardless of intent, however, the statement has come to represent the importance of giving credit where credit is due).

There is a vast literature on the issues of proper citation, academic honesty, and the potential pitfalls of plagiarism, and the list of references for further reading at the end of this article offers a few suggestions. We will address these issues in future posts, so be sure to subscribe to our email list below!

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But aside from these self-evident reasons, there are other perhaps less-considered arguments for scientists to be meticulous about citing sources properly. Some of these reasons are for the good of the entire research community, whereas others are more personal. This article discusses some of those less obvious, yet compelling, arguments for reserving a block of time specifically for the purposes of attending to citations.


1. Attribution serves as a fact-checking tool.

Accuracy is all important in any writing, especially when we write about science. The very act of looking up a reference for verification serves as an accuracy check, e.g., to double check a direct quote, to ensure the fidelity of a passage that you paraphrased, or to cite another study that is related to your study.


2. Citation makes you a better researcher.

Some of the hallmarks of good research include attention to detail and the ability to discern patterns and make connections. Good citation practices can help with both. The proper attribution of sources entails many details, such as correct page numbers, the spelling of author names, and of course, the accuracy of facts that you are presenting in your own article or other work.

Becoming detail-oriented in one aspect automatically instills good habits across the board in your research. As for the ability to spot trends and patterns, preparing a good bibliography trains you for this task (which is crucial in scientific analysis) because of the vast amount of information it condenses into a short space.


3. Good citation practices make you a better writer.

All of us aspire towards that elegant paper in which the prose is as compelling as the content and good attribution habits build a strong foundation towards that goal. Citing specific sources for the various facts that we present removes the hallmarks of intellectual laziness, vague thinking, and sloppy writing as generalizations, clichés, and outright false claims, e.g., as when the phrases, “everyone knows” or “they say,” are replaced with specific sources.

When you cite sources properly, you leave no question in your readers’ minds regarding your point. Furthermore, by citing, you can easily use active language and avoid raising the dreaded red flag of passivity to journal editors and reviewers. Cite well, and you may forever expunge the phrase “It is said” from your academic paper.


4. A good bibliography shows off your scientific knowledge.

A bibliography is simply the compilation of the various sources that you have read and cited in your own manuscript, dissertation, book, etc. Thus, an extensive bibliography is naturally a hallmark of a widely read and well-informed scientist.

I can remember at least one occasion when my peers offered more compliments on my bibliography than on the content of the paper (though they liked that too). In blind reviews, the matters for which I’ve drawn the harshest critiques are for errors of omission, i.e., for not having read or cited certain references. The last thing you want is a reviewer that says that you do not know your field because you forgot to cite a critical and well-known piece of scientific literature!


5. Careful citation practices will build your credibility as a scientist or scholar.

This point is a simple corollary of the previous one. Indeed, showing off scholarship is simply the icing on the cake of what a well-cited article has to offer. A deeper, more meaningful role that a good bibliography plays for researchers is to establish a writer‘s credibility among peers in their field. The better documented your research and arguments, the more credible you are to your scientific colleagues.


6. Citation enables better verification of your work.

Any piece of academic writing gets vetted several times over before it finally makes it into print or onto a website. Whether one is a peer reviewer, editor, or editorial assistant whose job is simply to track down sources in the bibliography and make sure that the citations are accurate, life is simply easier when there is less busy work. So, your paper is much more likely to be passed through these multiple rounds of editing with minimal criticism and positive feedback if you have already taken the trouble to attribute your information correctly and cite all your sources.


In a future article, we will discuss strategies for integrating good citation practices when writing and revising your articles. You are also encouraged to view our related article on Important English Academic Style Guides. Until then, incite yourself to cite when you write!


For further reading:

The following is a list of suggested readings on the subject of citation. The citation style used in this bibliography is that adopted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 6th edition, which I chose because it is one commonly used in many scientific journals.

Bryson, D. (2012). Using research papers: citations, referencing and plagiarism. Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine, 35(2), 82–84.

Clarke, R. (2006). Plagiarism by academics: More complex than it seems. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 7(2), 5.

Culwin, F., & Lancaster, T. (2001). Plagiarism issues for higher education. Vine, 31(2), 36–41.

Karami, M., & Danaei, G. H. (2016). A brief review of plagiarism in medical scientific research papers. Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research, 2(2), 1–8.

Klompien, K. (2001). The Writer and the Text: Basic Writers, Research Papers and Plagiarism. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado. (Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED452547).


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About the author:

Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science (Ph.D., Yale University, 2006) specializing in the recent history of biological and biomedical research. She came to this field with a background and experience in science writing (Grad. certificate, 1993) and microbiology (M.Sc., 1990). Author of two general reference-style books on the topics of micro-organisms and the human genome as well as numerous articles on science and scientists for general audiences, she has also published a number of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on various aspects of the history of biology and medicine, including but not limited to, virus research, immunology, and origin-of-life theorizing. She is currently an independent scholar working on a scholarly monograph that is expected to be published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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