No vacation from citation

Having just added the 10,000th reference to his personal bibliographic file, David Zeitlyn reflects on the joys and annoyances of avoiding looking like a fool

May 25, 2017
files with post it notes
Source: istock

There are few things that unite all academics across the disciplines, but the fear of looking a fool is surely one of them. And so it is that we devote hour after hour of our precious time to keeping an up-to-date list of all those books and articles that we should consider and cite next time we publish.

I’ve been keeping a personal bibliographic file since I wrote my master’s dissertation nearly 40 years ago, and I have just added my 10,000th reference. When I started, bibliographic data were stored on file cards. These, which have been dubbed “cellulose-based information technology”, were certainly highly transportable and easy to archive. The problem was that they were hard to search and did not help at all when it came to preparing formatted bibliographies for publication.

Enter computers. Even the first word processor that I used in the mid-1980s, on a mainframe computer, could manage bibliographies. Once personal computers arrived, bibliographic database programs were quickly developed, and there are now many alternatives available.

What this doesn’t solve, though, is the need to be persistent, obsessional and pernickety about recording each piece of data you come across so that, when you come to cite it 10 or more years later, you do not have to return to the source to get, for example, the issue number or the author’s full name. Although the move to online digital sources has made correcting such lapses less onerous than it once was, it can still be difficult – and, of course, some researchers still consult material on paper and in archives (often on the other side of the world), where without the complete reference number, it can be next to impossible to relocate the source. It is to avoid the waste of time caused by such omissions that supervisors drill their students not to rely on sources such as Google Scholar – whose citation data shame the company.

Reading lists can sometimes seem tyrannical. There is always more material to consult, so there is always the nagging fear of having missed something vital. On the other side of the coin, there is the risk that if you look too hard you will find a precedent to something that you believed you had thought of first. However, maintaining your bibliography also has the virtue of offering a mild, regular diversion from harder academic toil. When you need a rest, when you want a methodical task that is not too onerous, you could reach for a sudoku or a crossword, but I prefer to maintain my bibliography.

Not that the task is without its petty annoyances. It is immensely vexing, for instance, to have to waste five minutes moving information between fields in a database that cannot do it for you. Database developers waste hours of their collective users’ time with such failures in functionality. But pointing these things out exposes you to the risk of being seen as someone who fails to see the larger picture and harps on about trivial matters instead. It runs the risk of your being seen as an obsessive, overly concerned with minutiae, a pedant.

So I struggle uncomplainingly on and look forward to gently adding my next few thousand references in the gaps between other tasks – such as writing this article. I have done that in a small, out-of-the-way village in Cameroon. Safely off network, I have also been able to catch up with some of the many PDFs that I have downloaded over the past year but not had time to read. Entering them all into my database can be a task as irritating in its endlessness as the fly-swatting. But doing it is better than having my next publication swatted by the reviewers for failing to cite their latest paper.

David Zeitlyn is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford.

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