Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brief Thoughts on Citation

Citations, citations, everywhere. If you read the studies that show all the things that "studies show," you'll find that they are full of citations. A single paragraph may spend as many characters chronicling all the people who were sources for the words in that paragraph as it does actually, you know, making a point. I have serious reservations about this practice, not because it violates Plato's "once you put it in your own words, it's your idea" concept (though that certainly makes sense to me), but more because it ruins the flow of the writing, and makes every piece about law more than about ideas.

Like with many social, academic, or cultural ills, the reason this happens is money. How can we make sure people get paid for their ideas? By making those ideas intellectual property, of course!* But the process of getting published makes intellectual property more of a political competition than an actual representation of the way ideas are generated. Though not an expert, a high school student may conceive of an idea that a Senior Researcher would not, and yet the high schooler cannot publish that idea - cannot be granted ownership of it - unless he can play the game of writing a proper paper, finding a proper journal, and including proper background and citations and so on.

*Think about how much blogging - and electronic publication in general - complicates the issue.

The reality is, there's no way to trace all of our ideas. We can debate whether a priori knowledge is possible - allowing for the possibility of "original" ideas - but even if it is, the fact remains that almost everything we think and say is amalgamation and permutation of things we have seen, heard, read, felt, or done elsewhere. There may be original means of expression, and original ideas in some formal sense, and perhaps original connections between experiences, but it is exceedingly difficult to have a truly original idea. How far does citation go, then? Exact, word-for-word recreations of thoughts published elsewhere makes some sense, but what about paraphrasing, or re-wording? Should I cite my classmate for a witty saying, or my Uncle for a joke he told me when I was twelve?

'Common knowledge,' we tell students, need not be cited. We all know that there are 12 months in a year. But what is common knowledge in academic writing? In education research? In a physics journal? What glaring assumptions go without citation, while others are backed by fifteen papers over the last fifty years? And which of those papers do you cite?

I would be shocked if there are not people who research the use of citations in research (who must, themselves, also include endless citations), but there seems little to do about the actual practice. Yet, so many people seem to think it's either useless, or silly. At the very least, we could move citations out of the body of the text, right? Regardless, it's a game that academics have to play, but it's a game that I find indicative of a troubled culture.

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