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Academic Coaching & Writing

VII. Using Citations Strategically and Correctly

Mar 07, 2011 by Caroline Eisner

One of the hallmarks of academic writing, as opposed to writing in The New Yorker, say, is that citations are important markers of how in-depth your knowledge of the field is and how well-grounded you are in the citation rules of the field. Through the strategic use of citations, you will:

  • Acknowledge a debt of precedent to the experts who already have written about your topic or ideas.
  • Display an allegiance to a particular community or orientation.
  • Create a rhetorical stance for your research, and establish a credible writer ethos.

As an academic writer, you are expected to situate your ideas and research in a larger narrative. Writers usually situate their ideas with a review of the literature that has already been published.

While writing your literature review, you must also manage the tension between your own ideas and those of others. The statements you make are invariably a response to previous statements made by others. Explicit references to prior literature, through a direct quotation say, is a substantial indication of your text’s dependence on contextual knowledge between writers and readers. What and how you choose to cite helps define the context of your ideas and how your ideas are a contribution to what has come before. In other words, your new work and the evidence you choose to include must be embedded in a community-generated literature to demonstrate its relevance and importance. But, you must provide the material and ideas that connect previous ideas, and your writing needs to guide the work, rather than allowing others’ ideas and writing to guide your work.

Citation plays an important role in mediating the relationship between a writer’s argument and his or her discourse community. Overreliance on citation to establish your own authority will not work in academic writing. It can lead to inadvertent plagiarism, or a lack of ideas on your part. Each time you include a citation, quotation, or paraphrase, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve? Without a doubt, the most important reason for writing is to allow your readers to see you as an authority on your topic and your argument. If you are a student, or new to the field, you want to show that you are moving from a student (a consumer of knowledge) to a scholar (the producer of knowledge). The wise and judicious selection of outside sources in your writing will allow your readers to view you as knowledgeable and astute on the topic, able to sift through the numerous resources and select the ones that are most important.

Finally, in a mechanical sense, “signaling citation signals” are an important element of how you deal with integrating your source material. Integral citations are those in which the name of the cited author occurs in the citing sentence, while non-integral forms make reference to the author in parenthesis or through superscript numbers. The use of one form rather than the other reflects your decision to give greater emphasis either to the reported author or to the reported message. For example, if you are talking about Einstein and E=mc2, and everyone knows Einstein said this, you might not need to mention Einstein in the sentence itself, but only in the citation. But if you want to show that you have read a famous critic, than you may want to name the critic in the sentence, such as, “When Einstein said E=mc2, the world changed.” Of course, you should also cite him. The difference here is that you are, in the first case, not naming Einstein but are naming his famous equation. In the second, you are naming Einstein and the equation. But you need to ask yourself if your readers need to know it’s Einstein.

In this blog entry, the main idea is that even how you use your citations and name the people whose work you refer to influences your readers’ perception of your work. Too much name dropping without substance may cause readers to think you are relying on the works of others too much, and they may not believe that you actually used or understood the material you are mentioning. Not enough references to those who have come before may cause readers to doubt your knowledge of the topic. This is a tough line to walk, but as you read other articles in your field, you’ll learn the ropes.


  • Jackline says:

    May 23, 2017 at 12:39 am

    Good lesson. Thank you .

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