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.

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

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.

Reading your field: how much is enough?

I like reading. I am a complete bookworm – my family used to joke when I was growing up that if I didn’t have a book, I would read cereal boxes (I did, actually). When I was studying for my final school exams I would reward myself for an hour of maths with a chapter (or 4) of my current novel. (I still do this, although now it’s academic articles rather than maths, thank goodness). This post is the first of probably a few on reading for your PhD, and also for what comes after. This post asks the tough question: have I read enough, and how much, exactly, is that?

Academic reading happens at different levels according to purpose. When your purpose is simply to read a new paper or book to find out about a new piece of research or a new study in your field, with no immediate need to reference or use it in a specific way, it can be a fairly easy and enjoyable activity. No anxiety here; just learning and thinking in an undemanding way. When your purpose is to scope your field for a literature review section that gives you a ‘map’ of the part of your field you are researching into, what research and questions have been asked, and where the gaps are that your work is hoping to fill, there is some anxiety. Are you reading the right ‘names’? Are you reading enough articles? Have you missed out on important studies? Furthermore, when you are reading to build a theoretical framework for your study, and when what you have to read is tough theoretical and conceptual texts that you need to comprehend fully and mesh together into a coherent framework, there is indeed anxiety.

Managing anxiety around reading was a challenge for me during my PhD. I have written a little about meltdowns in relation to reading, and how I climbed off those particular ledges. The anxiety, for me, was different at the different stages of my PhD. At the beginning, when I was reading for my proposal, I had been told that I needed to have done 30% of the thinking by the time my proposal was ready for submission. Wow. 30% in the first 6 months? That seemed like a lot. A lot of reading and a lot of thinking. And writing, of course. Was I reading the right things? Was I reading enough? (Can you ever read enough?) This process was a challenging one, because I really didn’t know if I had read enough, or done enough thinking when I handed in my proposal, and I am not sure it’s that easy for a supervisor – a good one – to say ‘that’s enough reading, stop now’. They can and should advise you, point you towards useful reading that will help you, and help you stop when they sense you are reading the wrong kinds of things at different stages. But you have to, ultimately, work out for yourself whether what you are reading is helping you move forwards or not. Working out your own ideas, and what helps you to answer your questions, or doesn’t, is part of becoming a researcher who can move on, postdoc, to write, publish and work on new projects.

After the proposal went through, I then had to start firming up my ‘theoryology‘ and this meant reading the complex theoretical and conceptual stuff that makes me a little dizzy from time to time. This chapter was dense, and I really felt I needed to be clear on my ‘lens’ before I went out to generate data in the field. The reading, in relation, was very dense, and not always super-interesting. I worried a lot about whether I was reading enough of the texts, or whether I was actually reading deeply enough, or comprehensively enough. How would I tell if I wasn’t? Obviously my supervisor’s feedback was an important source of direction, but she hasn’t read everything in this field, either, and both of us were finding our way through my study through my reading, writing, and thinking. This was a daunting process for me, fraught with anxiety, but also a growing experience. I did feel like I grew slowly in confidence as my knowledge and understanding of my field developed. Perhaps looking at this process of reading, writing, and thinking from the perspective of what you are gaining as a researcher can help to manage the anxiety about how difficult and often meandering this period of time during the PhD can be.

I started with substantive theory, and then moved for a long while to more conceptual/framework-type theory, and came back to substantive theory in the end to finish writing my ‘literature review’. I can’t advocate one approach over others, but it does make sense to me to scope your field, find gaps and questions and then focus on one your study can ask and answer. Then move on to read what will help you build a framework or set of lenses with which to understand your field, your question, your data and your analysis of that data. Then, at the end, go back to the substantive theory and refine your literature review according to what your study evolved into. I think having a plan, like this one or one that makes sense for your particular study or field, really helps with the reading. Using a programme like Endnote to organise your reading, or using Nvivo or similar to make notes as you read, can help with a reading strategy and keeping track of your ideas and notes as you move through different parts of your study.

The thing is (and this is why answering the question this post posed is so tough), you can read too little, and find your examiners questioning your knowledge and understanding of your field, and the basis for your claims. But you can also read too much, and end up with so many references and so much information that it becomes difficult to find your voice and your ideas amidst all the others you are citing. It can also obstruct the focus of your study and make it difficult to choose just the one PhD to work on. It’s a bit like the Goldilocks Syndrome – not enough, too much, or just right? I am not sure what counts as ‘just right’, to be honest. There always seems to be more reading to do, and there are many journals and books in every field that can be potential sources of information for you. Draw on feedback and direction from your supervisor, and from peers in your field. Do your ideas make sense? Do you have sufficient evidence for what you are claiming? Do they believe your argument, and is it coherent? If the answers from your critical friends let you know that you are indeed making coherent, substantiated sense, you’re probably closer to ‘just right’ than you might think you are.

How can I get PhD if I still don’t understand the theory?

So I am revising chapter two, the ‘theory’ chapter, where I explain to my readers what ‘lenses’ I will be casting on my data are and why I need them. So, yesterday I got to the last section of the chapter which is too short and not detailed enough because it’s using conceptual tools that I need but that were only written about in draft form when I wrote the chapter last year. I decided I needed to do some more reading before I could finish it, and the drafts I was reading then have been updated and published in a book, and other papers applying these concepts have also been recently published, which is great. This morning I read two of the chapters. The first chapter I read was helpful – I have been misusing a concept slightly but can see how I can correct it quite simply. So, useful. The next chapter, introducing the next conceptual tool, induced a freak-out of large proportions. I don’t understand what the author is talking about in this chapter beyond explaining the concept I am using. There are so many big words and complex terms that it made me feel a bit dizzy. I actually stopped reading halfway through, put the book down and went to fold the laundry. I told lovely husband rather petulantly and with not a small amount of panic that this PhD is never going to be finished and I am giving up now because I cannot possibly be awarded this degree when I don’t even understand the theory.

Of course, now that lovely husband has very patiently talked me off the ledge, and worked through my misunderstandings and panic with me, I can see that I do understand the theory I am actually using and need, and that the bits that are freaking me out may not be necessary at this late stage of the game. Just because the theory is there does not mean I have to use it all. But I have to confess I am a bit lost in this chapter. I need to add these missing details and pieces that I can now read about, but I feel like I have way too much ‘theory’ and I worry that I actually don’t really understand it all; that my examiners and readers will see that and I will be found out as someone who only sort of knows what she is talking about. I would like to actually know what I am talking about at the end of all this hard work.

The theory was clearer in my head before I gathered and analysed the data. It was lovely and abstract and it made sense. Then I gathered data. I organised it and coded it and reorganised it and analysed it and started writing about it. And I could ‘see’ the theory but the data has also changed it. It’s not just abstract anymore, it’s applied now. The data is speaking back to the theory, challenging it and changing it. This is great, because it means I can actually make a contribution to knowledge in my field. I can add to the research others are doing and I can say something of value. But man, it’s hard work. Hard thinking work. Hard writing work. Looking at the two data chapters again makes me feel like I don’t understand the theory the way I thought I did. It makes me doubt myself, and I feel again that anxiety that I am getting this all wrong and that my examiners will be scathing in their critique and I will have so much more work to do when their reports come back next year. It’s a horrible, and sadly familiar feeling. On the good days when the writing goes well and the ideas seem strong and linked to the theory, I feel this will indeed be a good thesis and it will be finished by December. Today was not one of these days. I feel like I have lost the theory, lost my grip on it, and it does not make full sense to me. I don’t want to read anymore, but I also don’t want to have an incomplete chapter, or write a thesis that looks good on the surface but is theoretically or analytically shallow and weak.

But I need some perspective so I am not going to read anymore tonight. I will start again tomorrow with the published papers that report on have empirical research because these are easier to make sense of. I will finish these revisions, so that I can move onto the next set of revisions. I will remember that this is not my life’s work. It is a project, a thesis, a very big exam, and I am using this project to show my examiners that I can do the things that will mark me as having met the requirements set for me, mark me as being a researcher and scholar of a more experienced and more able kind. I will keep breathing, and writing and thinking and remind myself that I do understand the theory, really. Today was just a tough day.