Paper writing: the reference list

I was teaching a writing for publication course again last week, in which I work mainly with writers who are publishing a paper that comes out of a thesis, either Master’s or doctoral. Thus, they are all trying to create a small, focused argument from a larger argument. This is a significant challenge, and one aspect to think about, and focus on, is the reference list. Specifically, how many references you include, and the link between the references you need and the credibility and currency of your argument, and claims to knowledge.

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When you construct, research and write about a project in a Masters or doctoral thesis, you have to start with reading – a lot of reading. You need to spend time immersed in the debates, arguments, history and developments of your part of the field, so you can understand where and how your study fits into the field. And, particularly at doctoral level, the contribution to knowledge your study can make.

All this reading leads to quite an impressive reference list in the thesis – pages of proof that you know your field, and who the ‘names’ are, and what arguments they have made, and so on. This idea of ‘proof’ of expertise is an interesting one at this level of study. I have worked with many students who want a number: “How many readings do I have to have in my reference list? How many papers and how many books?” I have wondered if what they are asking is less about a guideline to know how much work lies ahead, and more for a sense of what counts as a credible amount of reading, or a reference list that an examiner will see as “right” or “valid” as a basis for the claims to knowledge within the study.

There are two aspects around reading and the reference list that you need to establish in the thesis: credibility and currency.

Credibility is about connecting your study to the most pertinent, and relevant, author(itie)s in your field – the papers, arguments, voices speaking about the issues that your study is connected with. You work to position your study within the conversations in your field in a way that shows that you understand who the ‘main’ speakers are – those who are doing, or have done, influential, field-setting work – and who the other contributors are – writers and researchers making smaller, but notable, contributions to the field. And, crucially, where your study is in all of this. By indicating, usually in your Introductory and ‘Literature Review’ sections or chapters, the nature of the part of the field you are studying, and thus the knowledge gap(s) into which your study’s claim(s) will fit, you establish credibility for your study, and your claims to knowledge.

This brings us to currency, though, as a caveat to credibility. If you are citing older research, you need to be clear on why you are doing this. Is it because this is theoretical work, or foundational research that set up the current state of the field – like Durkheim in Sociology, or Bernstein in Education, or Foucault in Political Science? This is acceptable – these are field-setters, theorists and researchers whose work others draw on to make their own, smaller contributions to knowledge through applied or theoretical work of their own. But, if you are citing studies that make claims about ‘applied knowledge’ (like the ways in which government works, or the ways in which a writing centre functions in a university, or the ways in which civil society organisations engage with poorer communities), these should not be older, unless you are using the older studies with newer ones to track shifts in the field. If you are citing a study from 1992, or even 2002, and claiming on the basis of that study’s findings that government is X, or civil society works in these ways, you will erode your credibility. Examiners will wonder why you are not reading the most recent research in your field.

Current can mean different things in different fields: in History, you would obviously be citing archival texts and older work, but there would also be Historians in your field writing papers about the issues you are focused on, debating and discussing aspects of these. You need to be reading both the foundational, seminal papers and texts in your field – whatever these are – and also the most current debates and discussions as well. Otherwise, you risk making an argument, especially at doctoral level, that does not make a new contribution to the field. Your supervisor should be able to help you work out what to read that is both current and credible in your field.

Thus, in a reference list for a paper, which is a small slice of the M or D thesis, you need to select your references carefully. Start with the most recent or current research, and the most pertinent research related to the argument of the paper. This will establish both currency (where do the claims to knowledge fit into the current debates/conversations in the field?), and credibility (who is having these conversations, and how does your work speak to theirs?). There is no magic number, but unless you are doing a scoping review, a useful guideline is about 10% of your total word count. Some papers may go up to 15% and others may be less than 10%, depending on the field and nature of the argument being constructed. The point, really, is that you need to be focused on including and citing current, credible research that indicates the state of the field, the gaps, and thus where your argument makes its contribution to knowledge.