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.

The connections between the act of research and referencing

As an editor, I often read papers and theses with varying degrees of consistent and well-considered referencing. The most recent MA thesis I edited presented the inspiration for this post – many references included in the text and left out of the list (10 pages’ worth), and several easily corrected errors, such as transposing author initials, and mixing up the order of authors’ names in the citations. The particular inspiration, though, was references that had incorrect book titles, missing information, and incorrect details, like year of publication, spelling of authors’ names and dead website links. Taking what was there and plugging into Google Scholar took all of 10 second to find the correct reference. It got me thinking, does sloppy, incorrect or inconsistent referencing say something to readers/examiners/reviewers about your ability to do research? 

I think, yes. Let me explain. Finding a useful text that doesn’t immediately tell you upfront all of the citation details, like the date of publication, or the place of publication (for example a working paper you find online, or a research report) prompts you to do some research to be able to cite the resource properly. You can’t just provide whatever you know and hope that the reader will be able to find the resource too. Remember, a reference list is more than an account of what you have read; it is a reading list for your readers, so that they can delve deeper into the research if they are interested, or need to look beyond your paper for further reading.

To provide your readers, then, with a useful and complete reference list, you need to do some research. In most cases this literally means going to Google Scholar, and typing in what you do have:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 17.55.02

Press ‘search’ and you end up with a list of sources:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 17.55.13

You could then, if it is available to you, click on the link to the right [PDF] to find the paper (usually a free version), like this from the author’s university repository:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 17.55.51This also contains the citation for both in text (Archer, 2010) and the reference list. But, if all you need is a citation, in one of the accepted formats, you can click underneath the reference on either ‘Cite’ or the quotation mark (in the newest version of Chrome):

Screenshot 2017-11-15 17.59.57

This will give you the screen below:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.00.39.png

You can then very easily copy and paste, and edit if needed, into your text.

This is the easy version of doing a bit of research to find ALL the information you need to consistently and completely include a reference in your text.

Sometime, though, Google Scholar is not entirely helpful. You type in the information you have and end up with incomplete citations, like this one:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.04.15.png

Although this has most of the details, it is missing a place of publication. Thus, you would need to do a bit more research and plug this into Google to find out where SUNY Press is located. This reveals with a few clicks that the Press is located in Albany, New York. This detail can now be added to the reference to complete it.

But it can get more complicated, like referencing working papers or legal statutes, or research reports. What you need to do here, is work with Google, Google Scholar, and other people’s reference lists (who have also cited the paper etc you are using), and find the information you need, and then reorganise it into your chosen citation format.

Example:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.17.22.png

This may become a version of this: Republic of South Africa. 2006. Children’s Act, 2005 (No. 38 of 2005), Government Gazette, 492(28944), 19 June 2006.

Or this:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.22.06.png

which may become a version of this: Piper, N. 2007. Enhancing the migration experience: Gendering political advocacy and migrant labour in Southeast and East Asia. IDRC Working Papers on Women’s Rights and Citizenship, No. 1, February. Online at: https://www.idrc.ca/sites/default/files/sp/Documents%20EN/WRC-WP2-Piper-Migration.pdf [accessed 15 November 2017].

Most of this information is on the cover page, but the URL needed to be copied and pasted from the website.

Or finally this:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.33.43Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.34.51Screenshot 2017-11-15 18.34.41

Sometimes, Google Scholar gives you a citation with no hyperlinks to follow. What you can then do is click on ‘Cited by X’ and choose one of the resulting papers that has a full-text link. Scroll down the the reference list, and find the details you need. You can then transpose these into your paper or thesis references, in your chosen citation format.

Part of the problem with references that are incorrect, incomplete or inconsistently presented, perhaps, is the misunderstanding about the technical work the references perform in a paper or thesis. They create, for your readers, a cumulative sense of the credibility of your work – the basis for your claims and arguments – and they provide, as noted above, a clear and complete reading list, which other researchers can use to read further, or more widely in their own research.

Your writing, whether in a thesis or paper, contributes to knowledge in your field, and gives other researchers, like you, knowledge and learning to draw into and build on in their own work. How do they do so if you don’t give them the information they need to read what you have read, and move on to other and further reading from there? You don’t just contribute through your argument; you contribute through tracking the resources you used to build and make that argument too.

Take the time to do the research around your referencing carefully, and persistently. This persistence in getting your references right, for editors, reviewers and examiners, reflects well on you as a researcher and writer. It says you can do basic and slightly more complex searching and research, that you care about your work, and that you understand the role of referencing in providing readers with a full account of the sources you have used in building and making your argument.