Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The most important part of proper citation: read the article

If you're an academic librarian, chances are you teach--IL courses, research workshops, whatever. And chances are, somewhere in your lesson plan, there's some content on proper citation: not just how (with increasing options in citation export and management, many of which are free or come bundled with a particular database package, this is arguably becoming less important), but when. I've worked with students who understand the context of proper citation perfectly well, and students who just didn't get it, and every level of awareness and good practice in between.

As it turns out, misinterpreting, misrepresenting, or even failing to read cited research isn't a phenomenon restricted to students. Leaving aside for the moment whether the authors chiefly concerned here are being misinterpreted, or just don't like the way their work is being used, I have to say that anecdotally speaking, incorrect or misprinted citations are one of the things that keeps me in business. I recall a particularly egregious example when I was still in library school: an engineering paper someone brought to me for help tracking down the citations in its reference list. Several of the citations on the list were incorrect in their details; date of publication, page numbering, volume numbering, and so forth. I draw no conclusions as to whether the paper's author was being misleading, or just sloppy, but considering the importance of citation chaining to researchers--I'd argue that it's at least as important as searching a bibliographic database, especially when working across disciplinary lines--it's inexcusable either way.

More recently, a paper I wrote passed peer review with recommendations for revision. One of the recommendations was that I incorporate more work by other researchers into my own paper, both to provide context for the subject under discussion and to show my awareness of recent scholarship. I did, reading, digesting, and incorporating at least half a dozen articles and book chapters as appropriate. I can't claim that my understanding of these scholars' work was 100% correct--who could? Though of course I did my best. I can claim, however, that I read everything cited in my paper from beginning to end, and more than once at that.

If professors are going to demand proper citation practice from their students--and they should--it behooves them to practice the same themselves. It's just good scholarship--and if that weren't enough, the increased transparency bestowed by the Internet makes doing otherwise less and less feasible as time goes on.

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