Triffid compulsion to reference

April 19, 1996

Sarah Nelson's article "Best footnote forward" (THES, April 12), seems to me to be based on cultural misunderstandings between the world of journalism and the world of academic writing. I frequently find the lack of references in broadsheet journalism very unsatisfactory. Who are "informed sources"?

What does the phrase "research has shown" mean? I often buy all the broadsheets and have my students compare the reporting of the same story or data in the different papers. This frequently reveals that the identical phenomenon can be presented as fact in wildly differing ways. The classic occurrence was the day The Times boasted the headline "Scargill beats Kinnock" while The Guardian's headline ran "Kinnock beats Scargill". In general I cannot check sources in newspaper articles to find out why they report events in such different ways or which is closer to the truth, because the articles are not referenced.

Now, in contrast to Ms Nelson's reaction to academics, I am not appalled or dismayed by this. The concept of different genres of writing exists (Swales 1990) and I appreciate that the underlying purposes, constraints, motivations and readership, are entirely different. I feel compelled to explain why academics should feel such compulsion to reference.

If I write in an article that "I think it is impossible not to communicate" then my readers are entitled to construe the sentence as an entirely subjective and possibly unfounded and unsupported opinion. If I write "there is a general consensus (Hanneman & McEwen, 1975, Watzlawick et al, 1980, Ellis & Beattie, 1986) that it is impossible not to communicate", then the sentence performs multiple simultaneous functions.

a. it demonstrates that, rather than being my personal opinion, it is the collective opinion of leading academics;

b. In combination with the bibliography, the references enable readers to check my statement and ensure that I have correctly represented those academics' opinions;

c. It demonstrates knowledge of and familiarity with an academic field. Names and dates are particularly important in that they allow readers to assess how wide, relevant and up-to-date my reading is;

d. It shows that the statement made is not being passed off as my original thought and it gives credit where credit is due. Universities are awash with policy documents which attempt to define plagiarism, and academic writers would be well advised to provide copious references for this reason alone;

e. There are inevitably different schools of thought within an academic discipline, and references can be a shorthand for explaining which particular school you are following;

f. The references can serve as points of exploration for the reader, who can sometimes find a reference to an interesting publication which s/he has never heard of before. Nothing is more frustrating than looking up a reference in the bibliography and finding the details are non-existent or inadequate.

References, then, can only be understood in the context of academic discourse as a whole, within which they fulfil multiple indispensable functions. Ms Nelson's criticism that "they often fail to explain anything" completely misses the point: references are not generally made for their explanatory power, but to perform the functions detailed above. The fact that references have "mushroomed like Triffids since the 1970s" can be simply attributed to the explosion in the number of publications in many academic fields during the period and can be viewed as a positive, if exhausting, development.

My research interest is in the area of discourse analysis, and in particular in trying to understand why particular institutional systems of communication and discourse are the way they are. Institutional discourse varieties such as academic writing and journalistic writing have evolved over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years. The research which has been done (for example Atkinson and Drew 1979, Drew and Heritage 1992) has shown that there are generally very good underlying reasons for the idiosyncratic nature of varieties of institutional discourse even though individual features examined in isolation might appear to be bizarre or superfluous.

Ms Nelson might like to study ethnomethodology (see, for example, Garfinkel 1967), which endeavours to portray the orientations of participants in institutional discourse, or what the interactionalists themselves believe they are doing as opposed to what observers from a different institutional culture believe they are doing. She might then stop attributing the use of references to "academic machismo", "mystification" etc. and start to focus on participant perspectives instead.

Paul Seedhouse University of York

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments