Best footnote forward

April 12, 1996

Signs of erudition or academic machismo? Sarah Nelson objects to the Triffid- like mushrooming of references.

I am appalled by academics. If many are appalled in return, we can initiate a rigorous discourse or even start a fierce debate - which must be a good thing.

Soon I return to academic study after 15 years as a journalist, which blotted out my earlier incarnation as a PhD student and author of two books. To prepare mind and soul I have been reading many research papers, attempting to write for academic journals and contributing chapters to books. This is often a refreshing, stimulating change for members of the Fourth Estate: it also comes as a shock.

Many things dismay me, from impenetrable jargon to the elitist, snail's pace practices of academic journals in considering papers. But those tirades can wait. Today's horror story is about footnotes and references.

How, one might ask, could such marginal matters give anyone nightmares? But they are far from marginal to academics, which is the main problem. They are central to self-esteem, professional status, machismo and one-upmanship.

I cannot speak for other disciplines, but in social science references are ubiquitous. They seem to have mushroomed like Triffids since the 1970s and early 1980s. Of course we had them then, but discreet little numbers above the text kept the argument flowing without jarring interruptions, and at the chapter's end you found some interesting, informative discussion.

Today's usual style constantly breaks your concentration: (Bloggs, 1991), (Hamble-Squires, 1980) and (Piffle, 1994a). More seriously, at least half of them seem totally unnecessary, adding nothing to our understanding or enlightenment.

I refuse point-blank to write papers like this any more. Sometimes I can only conjure up three or four references, and that with great effort. It is shocking, I know, and I hope it starts a trend; but it may just bring cascades of rejection slips.

I admit this could be journalistic laziness. Dashing off innumerable sharp pieces to deadly deadlines, we do not have time to look up all these fiddlesome references: "Princess Di frowned at Will Carling" (Sun, 1995). But it is not just sloppy thinking - in fact journalists must constantly check their accuracy or the repercussions can be great and publicly embarrassing.

My objections to these endless, obsessive references are twofold. First, they are now continually used to support mundane observations that do not need them, on the lines of: "The sun rises in the east (Squib, 1935, Parsnip, 1984b) and sets in the west (Cabbage 1834)." Reading a text becomes akin to eating a heavy meal punctuated by continual hiccups, phone bleeps and sharp rings on the doorbell.

Second, they often fail to explain anything, as I recall they used to do. You are left wondering what on earth the author in question wrote or meant, or even what side of an argument they took. Take for instance: "She was subjectified (Horne, 1990)", or "Despite suggestions to the contrary, (eg Levick, 1992) the sinews of optimism are strained indeed to believe the picture might be otherwise."

I could find 20 references to adorn a single statement that sexual abuse of children causes psychological problems in later life. But how would that enlighten the reader of my paper? The discipline of summarising an author's original argument for the reader to support, augment or explain the arguments of your own paper, seems lost in seas of obfuscation or necklaces of unexplained references.

Why should academics feel such compulsion to do this? It cannot be for pleasure and excitement. Checking references is one of the most tedious, nitpicking and time-consuming aspects of writing, often approached with dread. Charitable explanations are that academics now feel compelled to write so, otherwise they will not be taken seriously by their peers. The more references, the more erudition. As a result, the whole exercise becomes habitual and addictive.

Less charitable explanations are that countless references have become status symbols, signs of academic machismo and mystificatory badges that distinguish "academic" research from lesser breeds.

They proclaim: "Look how many books and papers I've read." (Or, one suspects, "look how many books and papers I've pretended to read, but haven't really or else I could tell you what they say"). They announce: "Look how many books and papers you will have to read to understand as much as I do, to be as well-informed as I am, to challenge me."

What they rarely convey is any sense of excitement and stimulation, an enthusiasm passed to the reader to take up this reference. When I discover research on sexual abuse, I sometimes feel it is a revelation and a new insight, something moving or powerful, an outrage or a gross prejudice. Many other people will be inspired or disgusted by papers in their own discipline. Why can we not bring these references to life?

Becoming a journalist has one merit: it forces you to think clearly in advance, then to write economically and comprehensibly. Many references now inhibit both things. To avoid further pain on all sides, the avalanche must be stopped. "Do you smoke 20 references a day? Quit now, for all our sakes."

Academics need a ruthless sub to ask: "What are you actually trying to say? What arguments are you trying to develop? Why is this reference important? Do you really need it or could you run a red pen through 60 per cent of the names and dates, swapping those hours of deep burrowing in libraries and texts for evenings of wine and candlelight or watching a football match?" Sarah Nelson is a freelance journalist and writer.

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