The Value of Citation
The previous post made passing reference to the deficiency of cited material in the digital pages of Wikipedia, something that, for many, reduces the quality and reliability of the content.
Citations serve a number of purposes. Most basically, they allow the reader of a work to access the material the author of the work relied upon for the assertions in the work. The requirement for uniformity in citation stems from this basic purpose. Consistent format in citations facilitates readers’ ability to track down the precise source the author used. There are a number of citation styles, which are often extremely complex. Although there is not a single, common system of citation, different fields, professions, and specialties tend to adhere to a consistent system within their own literature. In legal documents, The Bluebook‘s “Uniform System of Citation” dominates the profession and is in its eighteenth edition. I have advocated a simpler regime, at least when it comes to academic papers, for some years, guided by the basic premises of citation discussed here: 1) provide enough information about the cited source to allow a reader to look at the same source material the author was looking at while writing, and 2) be consistent. Adherence to these two guidelines should require no additional work on the part of the author, unlike the more complicated systems.
Beyond this basic function, proper citation has other effects. One of these is the strengthening of the author’s credibility. In a legal brief, for example, the goal is to inform and convince a judge, not to create a great literary work. Judges who read a brief devoid of citation to relevant authorities will be skeptical of the brief, even if the arguments are of good quality. Statutes and court precedent are authorities that bind judges. When a brief cites those authorities, the judge is more comfortable with the attendant arguments because the advocate has presented arguments rooted in the judge’s relevant legal landscape. In the case of scholarship, the situation is inverted but the outcome is the same. There, the goal is to create a groundbreaking, original work, and one might think that citations to the work of others erodes originality. Very few scholars produce truly sui generis work; rather, it is very likely that they relied upon the ideas of those who came before them. Failure to cite to the ideas of others will erode the author’s credibility– first among readers familiar with the background literature and then more generally, once a reputation of plagiarism spreads– detract from whatever actually original ideas the author presented, and irk those whose ideas the author imported as original.
Beyond maintaining credibility, another purpose is the active showing of respect that comes with an affirmative recognition in the form of citation. More neutrally, citation to a source signals, in most cases, quality. This notion is the basis for tracking the influence of scholars and publications by aggregating and tallying citations. The idea of showing respect for content creators plays out informally as well. On online information websites like Twitter, for example, the practice of retweeting, or otherwise giving credit by linking to originators is common and widely favored.
Sometimes citations come as a pleasant surprise. A colleague recently forwarded me a link to the American Bar Association‘s news posting on the top legal blogs of 2009 and directed my attention to the caption for The Volokh Conspiracy:
The Volokh Conspiracy is named for its founder, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, but it’s authored by nearly 20 contributors, mostly law profs with a passion for con law, government policy and each other’s observations. One fan, Vanderbilt law student Alexander Denton, praises Volokh contributors for “engaging posts on a variety of topics, thoughtful interaction … and writing styles that are [both] scholarly and accessible.”
It is unlikely that the ABA bolstered its credibility with that inclusion. Even so, I’m sure a VC Guest-Blogging invitation will arrive any minute.