As an early-career researcher, you’re likely adjusting to a variety of challenges as you make your way. Writing and publishing a research paper is one of them. One part of the writing process might not seem important, but it can have a major impact, not only on your prospects for getting published but, ultimately, on your career standing. This essential task is the proper selection and recording of the references you explicitly cite in the paper.
This post examines why a carefully chosen and properly rendered reference list is so important.
Paying your debts
The requirement to acknowledge your sources is one of the most important conventions in research communication. Based primarily on the writings of American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), the act of citing previous work has been compared to the payment of an intellectual debt. That is, giving proper credit to the specific research (and its creators) that has guided or inspired the work reported in your paper. Because research proceeds largely on the basis of precedent, building on work that has come before, citations will ultimately tell a detailed story about how research in a given area unfolded. Your well-chosen cited references will add to this story, conferring suitable credit on particularly influential work.
Cited references can also tell a story about you – and not necessarily a flattering one. A 2018 editorial in the Journal of Critical Care Medicine notes that, “a wrong, inappropriate or unsuitable citation often blights the quality of a paper … An editor or reader may interpret poor referencing as a sign of intellectual laziness, unclear thinking, and inaccurate writing.” Needless to say, such reactions will not help your prospects when your paper is under review.
Editorial guidelines from life-science publisher BMC apply to authors in all disciplines. For example: any statement that derives from an external source, as opposed to the authors’ own ideas or findings, should be cited; authors should try to cite the primordial source of other original work, as opposed to relying on reviews that cite the original work; authors should cite only work that they have read and that accurately supports the statement in their paper – and, ideally, only work that has undergone peer review; and authors should not excessively cite work from their friends, peers, or home institution.
Excessive citations to your own work can be a red flag for editors and reviewers. Of course, self-citation is a normal and necessary practice, providing background and context for current research. Studies suggest typical rates of self-citation between 10% and 35% for the average paper, depending on the field. But engaging in the practice too much may draw the disapproving eye of editors and referees.
Along with establishing your authority and supporting your assertions, careful and thorough documentation of your sources can also protect you against possible charges of plagiarism.
Plagiarism expert Jonathan Bailey, in an essay posted on his website Plagiarism Today, notes that, nowadays, many students, with their easy electronic access to untold volumes of material, see no harm in appropriating text without citation as long as the information is correct. He provides three reasons for correct citing: giving credit where it’s due, strengthening your position, and, under the possible shadow of a plagiarism charge, engaging in the due diligence that can save you from potentially career-threatening trouble. But beyond these ethical considerations, he says, lies a more practical benefit: mastering proper citation will make you a better writer.
Know your journal
Familiarize yourself with the reference style and guidelines of the journal in which you intend to publish. Journal and publisher websites routinely feature pages with detailed instructions – noting, for example, whether the Vancouver (or author-number) system is favored, or if it’s the Harvard (author-date, or parenthetical) style, or some special variation. Many university libraries host web pages with guides to various systems – for example, Imperial College London’s Citing and Referencing: Vancouver style guide. Such sites also offer guidance on citing works that appear in media other than journals: websites, videos, data repositories, and other relatively new venues for scholarly communication.
Put technology to work
Today’s researchers have an advantage over those of previous generations, who were compelled to manually compile references and bibliographies, laboriously changing and re-typing their style and sequence when citing the sources in different papers.
Programs devoted to reference and citation management have now automated the compilation, formatting, and sharing of reference lists. EndNote, for example, enables papers retrieved from the Web of Science to be instantly extracted and saved in the form of references for a bibliography. These references can then be individually selected and reformatted as needed in work being prepared for publication – and can even be altered automatically into different bibliographic styles.
Given today’s available tools, it’s easy to render correct and thorough referencing of source materials. Your work and career will only benefit as a result.