Why reference?

There’s was an interesting debate about referencing over on the OUA Coffee Shop page on Facebook recently. I didn’t have time to participate, since my recent datapocalype* meant I had to remark a heap of papers. I also feel a little uncomfortable participating in, or even reading, debates in what I think of as “student spaces”, which I’ll have to write/think more about later.

But back to my point, which is referencing! Many students are  uncomfortable with the referencing requirements at university, for a range of reasons. For some, it’s difficult to work out how to use the referencing system correctly, or to work out what needs referencing  and what doesn’t. For others, it’s the concept itself they’re uncomfortable, often because they think it means we don’t value their own ideas and experience. This is understandable – I remember having similar complaints when I first started university.

Reading Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion has been a great reminder, for me, about why I care about referencing. It’s well-written, passionate, and obviously informed by significant research. (Hopefully I’ll write more about Morozov’s argument’s later.) From an academic viewpoint, and even from an activist viewpoint, though, it’s also tremendously frustrating.

This is because The Net Delusion has, quite sensibly, been written for a popular audience. Rather than including clear in-text references, Morozov’s included a bibliography at the end and indicated many of his sources within the flow of the text, (for example, “In 1914 Popular Mechanics thought that…” (p. 286)) but some sources aren’t clearly indicated. This means that when I’m reading it, and come to an argument that I find unlikely or an idea I’d like to explore futher, it’s occasionally quite difficult to find more information.

What methodology was used in that study? Which organisation carried out that work? What were the details of that author’s argument? In this case, some careful scanning of the bibliography (and reading near an Internet-connected computer) would let me find the sources used and look into them more deeply, but it’s more difficult than I’m accustomed to. Without references, it wouldn’t be possible at all.

The main reason that referencing matters to me is that I don’t see the lives of texts as ending once they’re written. Even brilliant research needs to be tested, added to, updated. While this might not be true for many university essays, which are often written, read by tutors once, and then gather (metaphorical) dust, I want students to learn to reference so that they can contribute to ongoing debates in a way that other people can question and build on.

When Morozov writes, “Revolutions prize centralization and require fully committed leaders, strict discipline, absolute dedicated, and strong relationships based on trust” (p. 196) , for example, I want to see his sources! If this is just something he worked out through personal (second-hand) experience, well, then, I can say, “ah, but my own personal (second-hand) experience is quite different” – and then what’s left but to stare at each other awkwardly? But if he cites particular examples or research studies, I can provide counter-examples, cite contrasting research, question the methodology of the studies cited… and then we have at least the potential for a conversation, and for the work to grow into something new.

Although for those of you struggling to remember where the comma goes and which titles go in italics, this may not be much consolation!


* My external hard drive died, I put off getting a new one for backups, my internal hard drive died, most of my data was saved by some friends, but sadly not all of the recent batches of marking I’d done. I’ll be returning to the paranoid back-eveything-up-in-three-regime of my PhD days.

6 thoughts on “Why reference?

  1. Hi Skye,

    Great post! The thing I dislike about uni referencing is that each unit has different referencing styles. It’s hard enough writing an essay with good referencing without having to learn a new style each time. Why don’t universities have one agreed style that we can use throughout our studies?

    1. The upside of different referencing formats is that they teach you to follow different kinds of instructions, much like different subjects themselves teach you to write/think in different ways.

      It would be a bit unfortunate if by the end of university you’d learnt exactly one style of writing/researching, when any kind of job will require you to learn and follow the rules of different genres of writing (internal vs. external report, ministerial briefing note, correspondence, minutes etc.) very quickly.

      So while the benefit isn’t intentional in any way, nor is it as pronounced in the referencing of an essay as it is in the writing of it, but at least the different referencing formats encourage students (in theory) to always check the rules and conventions of what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

    2. Of course these days it’s slightly easier due to programs such as endnote which can format yout references in pretty much any way you need them. Plus keep track of them etc.

  2. I’d have resented referencing my university assignments a lot less if someone had explained it in these terms. I think the trouble is undergraduates are just told to do it, they’re not told that they’re practising so that later they can join in to the chorus of academic discourse.

    Maybe students should be shown some of the amazing 16th/17th century correspondence-on-things-via-ship, reading some of the notes between philosophers and natural scientists from that time really gave me an idea of how it all got started :-)

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