Friday, 2 October 2015

References. Hmm: how do they weigh?

I have been undertaking Inger Mewburn's edX MOOC, "How to Survive your PhD", and read a great question on the discussion boards by Benton Groves. He asked "Are many peer-reviewed papers overloaded with references just to give the thesis a pass grade based on weight?"

Cherry Stewart replied that she had been advised in her writing to take care with the references that she includes, weighing up how credible the source is, and how much value it adds to the argument being built.

Inger replied that both positions have value, citing Bruno Latour (1987, p. 33) on the subject of pure numbers:

The effect of references on persuasion is not limited to that of ‘prestige' or ‘bluff’. Again it is a question of numbers. A paper that does not have references is like a child without an escort walking at night in a big city it does not know: isolated, last, anything may happen to it. On the contrary, attacking a paper heavy with [citations] means that the dissenter has to weaken each of the other papers, or will at least be threatened with having to do so, whereas attack a naked paper means that the reader and the author are of the same weight: face to face."

I found this comment really interesting: that Latour was saying that without references, we stand alone. Good point. I think most of us are more used to 'standing on the shoulders of giants' - and citing them.

Inger then uses Latour (1987) to point out that if the author brings out the big guns, and you want to refute that author's arguments, you have to go back and unpeel all the references they have supplied. You have to check and verify that each argument has validity, generalisability and reliability in each instance. You also need to check that the argument is correct, and is used with the original author's true intent.

You may also find that further back, the references all end up citing each other. This is something that today we can determine at a click using GoogleScholar, but that had to be painstakingly manually mapped in Latour's day (1987, Mewburn, 2015).

Additionally, some citations might be 'perfunctory'; that is, included because they are always included. These citations might be part of the normal framework of the field, showing the author's allegiances, and go, therefore, largely unquestioned. That may make them incorrect or irrelevant. But we won't know until we dissect the whole thing.

An enlightening little comment in a busy discussion forum.



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