Why we cite the work of others and what constitutes a good referencing source?


The following short post contemplates some of the often asked questions connected with referencing and discusses the importance of referencing in general.

Why do we cite the work of others?

Nigel Gilbert, British sociologist and a pioneer in the use of agent-based models in the social sciences states that “referencing is an aid to persuasion” (Gilbert, 1977).

I agree with the above statement. In my view, the well-chosen reference has a potential to positively complement the content of any academic paper. Firstly it demonstrates the author’s ability to research and overall familiarity with the researched topic. Secondly, it confirms the idea that all researchers are working on top of the knowledge created by other researchers in the field of study. Moreover, it is also an acknowledgment of the original source and the body of work on which the author based his research.

Additionally, we should state, that the reference often acts as an excellent tool of influence and persuasion, aiding the reader in deeper understanding of the content of the study in question in its full scope.

Very importantly, the correctly formatted referencing also allows the reader to identify the sources used by the author, as well as it helps readers to locate the sources used by the author.

What constitutes a good referencing source?

I believe that one of the most important reasons for referencing academic papers is their overall quality, the ability to convey the newly gained knowledge and provide answers for the hypothesis in question. This sentiment is impeccably captured in the master’s thesis on the evaluation of advisory sources by C.L. Quillen, who states that “Simply stated, a good reference source is one that answers questions, and a poor reference source is one that fails to answer questions.” Quillen, C. L. (2001).

What would be an excellent source to reference? Most researchers are aware that the continually referenced source that received a high number of citations inevitably leads to the added credibility and respectability of the author; including author’s perceived authority on the topic. That said, in my view, any such authoritative resource would likely be an excellent choice to use as a reference. It is a well-known fact that the academic community measures the quality of an any published paper by the number of citations it receives, which illustrates that referencing works both ways, first by assisting authors during research, then by helping others in capturing the essence of the research, as well as aiding the future exploration of the researched field.

Authors should always keep in mind, that the sources used in their research papers are there to assist the researched topic in a way that is truthful and that presents the facts as they are.

“Well-managed journals promote good research. Problems such as coercive citation, misuse of impact factors,… are results of mismanagement and unethical practice.” (Carling, 2012).

The referencing carries a very defined responsibility with the author. While in most cases, the scholars and authorities on the topic are well equipped and capable of dissecting the good from bad in the topic of their expertise, the readers that come from student community might not be able to effectively do so. The imminent risk that comes from ill-usage of referencing is the tendency, especially among apprentices and students, to take anything published as a quality reference. So, it is not hard to imagine that students can be manipulated. It likely happens all the time that published academic papers are taken at their presented face value without being questioned about the validity of the sources used by the author. In that sense, I would tend to believe that referencing is misused in order to sway the reader’s opinion in one way or another with a goal to support the researched material, rather than staying objective on the topic.

Let’s ask ourselves a question. How often do we look at the list of references in any of the academic papers and investigate the citation sources? if the answer is ‘not very often’, then the research community has a problem to resolve, because the danger of being influenced in precisely the direction author wants to take and the chance of being manipulated would be quite high, especially if the reader is not experienced in the field of study.

It’s a bit of a conundrum and I am not sure if there is anything to do about the issue of responsible referencing and citing. Perhaps one way is to introduce a software artifact, a scanning engine that is capable of examining a document and rate the used references by the number of citations they receive in other published academic papers (btw. this could be an interesting dissertation topic). That way we could at least quantify if the author is using authoritative sources. However, that type of system would not tell us if the author used citations in the most ethical way possible.

Additionally, some authors, such as Herbert Rotfeld, professor of marketing from Auburn University, hint that even the total number of citations may not be exactly the perfect measure of quality by stating that “Friends cite friends not to increase citation counts, but rather, to admit to help and influence from colleagues, or so we hope.” (Rotfeld, 2018).

I’ll pose a question to anyone who’s reading my blog: What is your opinion about researchers citing their research fellows and students their professors; and in such way artificially inflating the total citation count associated with the quality of academic papers? Do you think we have a problem that research community should solve?


I want to conclude this post by one of the best definitions of referencing which comes from the authors of the 10th edition of Cite Them Right, who state that “Referencing is the process of acknowledging other people’s work when you have used it in your assignment or research… It provides the link between what you write and the evidence on which it is based.” (Pears & Shields, 2016, p. 1).



Nigel Gilbert, G. (1977). Referencing as persuasion. Social studies of science, 7(1), 113-122.

Quillen, C. L. (2001). Helping readers find books: An evaluation of four readers’ advisory sources. master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pears, R., & Shields, G. (2016). Cite Them Right (10th ed.). London: Palgrave Macmillan

Carling, J. (2012). Use your author’s rights to make articles freely available. Impact of Social Sciences Blog.

Rotfeld, H. (2018). Academic citation abuse & misuse. [online] Auburn.edu. Available at: http://www.auburn.edu/~rotfehj/ICOM.html [Accessed 7 Apr. 2018].