Why scholars cite the things they cite – the real reasons

In my previous post, I took a look at some of the scholarship about why certain articles are cited more than others.

I feel bad, because by focusing on all of the little things that correlate with citation rate, I didn’t talk about the substantive aspects of how a citation is used.

Sometimes a citation is used to simply say "I agree." Other times it may be used to say "You're wrong."

Cue the next article I found by R.B. Williams (2011) about the history and classification of citation systems in the biosciences.

This was an exciting article to read for two reasons.  First, I had been looking for some information about the history of various citation styles for a while.  (It isn’t easy.  Try Google-ing “history of citation styles”).

Second, the article made me aware of the scholarship about how citations are actually used within scientific documents.  I am particularly drawn to the questions posed by Moravcsik and Murugesan back in 1975.

  1. Is the reference conceptual or operational? In other words, is the reference made in connection with a concept or theory that is used in the referring paper, or is it made in connection with a tool or physical technique used in the referring paper? The distinction is not meant to be a value judgment, and is not to be taken as synonymous with judging the importance of the paper referred to.
  2. Is the reference organic or perfunctory? In other words, is the reference truly needed for the understanding of the referring paper (or to the working out of the content of that paper), or is it mainly an acknowledgment that some other work in the same general area has been performed?
  3. Is the reference evolutionary or juxtapositional? In other words, is the referring paper built on the foundations provided by the reference, or is it an alternative to it?
  4. Is the reference confirmative or negational? In other words, is it claimed by the referring paper that the reference is correct, or is its correctness disputed? Incorrectness need not be claimed through an actual demonstration of an error in the paper referred to, but could also be established, for example, through inferior agreement with experimental data.

First, these questions have a real importance when we start thinking about the ways in which citation metrics don’t necessarily get at the importance of scientific work.
And second, I think there is some potential in these ideas to help students when they write term papers and cite their sources.

Traditionally, I teach students that they need to cite their sources in order to acknowledge the scholarly work of others.  I talk about the implications of not citing something (it was your own idea, its common knowledge, its plagiary), but I don’t really go into more detail about why you might cite something.

By breaking down the purpose of a citation explicitly, as these questions do, perhaps we can better prepare students to effectively use the research articles they find in their term papers and projects.

Now, I’m no expert on teaching writing.  But the best term papers do an effective job of integrating the various sources they find into a cohesive narrative.  Perhaps we could be more explicit about how this is done, and perhaps these ideas can help the students envision what their citations and their term paper might look like.  Perhaps.


Moravcsik, M. J., & Murugesan, P. (1975). Some Results on the Function and Quality of Citations. Social studies of science, 5(1), 86-92. Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://sss.sagepub.com/content/5/1/86.full.pdf

Williams, R. B. (2011). Citation systems in the biosciences: A history, classification and descriptive terminology. Journal of Documentation, 67(6), 995-1014. doi:10.1108/00220411111183564


3 thoughts on “Why scholars cite the things they cite – the real reasons

  1. Thanks – these posts were a really interesting summary.

    It’s always slightly bothered me about citation ranking and different citation types, but I’ve never thought about it enough to articulate the ideas you’ve raised here.

    One thing that’s always bothered me is perfunctory references with no explanation, i.e. just saying that someone else has a different technique without bothering to mention how it differs from the work being discussed, not to mention what the comparative advantages or disadvantages are.

    I read these as “yeah, I’m aware that paper exists but I haven’t bothered to read it”. But *bing* goes the citation count.

  2. Thanks for this. Citing becomes so automatic, I didn’t even think to break it down to the citation reflecting “I agree” and “You are wrong.”

    But you are right! 🙂

    I am paying “blog calls” to each @scio12 attendee to say “Hi” and give your blog a shoutout on twitter. I look forward to seeing you in January!

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