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Writing Notes: Citations

A citation is a reference within a text to another document, the cited work. The purpose of a citation is usually to provide support or evidence for what you are saying; it tells the reader where this support or evidence can be found, and it typically does this by providing a reference to a bibliography, a list of detailed bibliographic information provided at the end of your document.

Given this purpose, there are a number of things that follow:

The second of these is the topic of a separate writing note. With regard to the first, here are some tips on making good citations:

  1. Citation Format: You'll sse documents that use a number format for citations: these look like '[3]'. Use the [author, date] format in preference to this. A citation like '[Burley and Smith, 1990]' is much more useful: any reader who is halfway familiar with the literature will generally know what the cited work is without having to jump to the back of your document to check. The number format is often imposed by journals that want to save space, but it makes the document harder to use.

  2. Citation Precision: Indicating the Rhetorical Role: For a citation to be useful to your reader, you need to indicate what they will find if they go and hunt down the cited work. Most writers are rather bad at this. Consider the following:
    There are many ways in which aggregation techniques have been used within sentence planning [Crowbar 1988].
    What will I find if I go look in [Crowbar 1988]? The citation above would seem to offer at last the following possibilities:

    As a writer, you should make clear what the role of the citation is; otherwise you risk frustrating your reader. So, for the above example, something like the following might be better:

    There are many ways in which aggregation techniques have been used within sentence planning (see [Crowbar 1988] for a catalog of these).

  3. Citation Precision: Pinpointing the Evidence: Your citation should make it easy for the reader to find the material you are pointing at. For example:
    It has sometimes been argued (see, for example, [Jones 1966]) that graph unification can be more efficiently implemented than term unification.
    Well, if [Jones 1966] is a 950 page tome on data structures, this is not helpful. You should make your citation as precise as is necessary; so, in this context, the following might be better:
    It has sometimes been argued (see, for example, [Jones 1966, Section 4.6]) that graph unification can be more efficiently implemented than term unification.
    The degree of precision in the pinpointing will depend on whether you're referring to a discussion of a concept or a specific claim. In many cases it's very appropriate to include specific page numbers in your citations, as in '[Jones 1990:56]' or '[Jones 1990, page 56]'; if you're writing for a reputable publisher they will have a preferred format for such citations.

  4. Bracketing: in most documents you read, you'll find that citations appear in parentheses, i.e. round brackets, as in '(Burley and Smith, 1990)'. I'd argue that square brackets are to be preferred. If you have a sequence of citations inside a parenthetical comment, using parentheses around your citations can become confusing and ugly: '(see (Burley and Smith, 1990), (Jones 1991))'. You're much less likely to inadvertently lose a bracket in '(see [Burley and Smith, 1990], [Jones 1991])'. It should be noted, though, that specific styles may be required by specific publishers; some would require, for example, that this instance be formatted as '(see Burley and Smith, 1990; Jones, 1991)'. Ideally, you should use software that handles the formatting of citations automatically: see the related note on bibliographic tools in Tools for Writing Documents.

  5. Syntactic and Parenthetical Citations: Citations come in two forms, syntactic and parenthetic. Make sure you use the right form. A syntactic citation is one where the citation itself is part of the syntax of the sentence you are writing; typically, the citation serves as the subject or object of the sentence. Here's an example:
    However, as argued by Jones [1990], this approach is inefficient.
    This is to be contrasted with parenthetical citations where, well, the citation is parenthetical:
    However, the cosine method [Jones 1990] is inefficient.
    An easy diagnostic is that you can remove a parenthetical citation from the text without disturbing the syntax of the sentence, but you can't remove a syntactic citation without leaving a hole. Note that, of course, the citations in the examples above could be made more precise.

[Did you find this page useful? Did it miss out something on the topic you thought was important? Is some part of it wrong? Mail me and let me know.]

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Last Modified: 6 March 2002