An important part of academic writing is exactness and correctness, especially in connection with referencing.
Correct referencing is vital for reasons of clarity as well as for reasons of academic integrity.
Misrepresentation of identifying features, such as the journal title, volume or page number of an article, will obviously make the source difficult to find for readers, whereas incorrect in-text citations may lead to actual misrepresentation of the source text.
The problem of incorrect referencing
Although many journals and publishing houses have well-established methods of checking references before texts are published, the issue of incorrect referencing is recognised as a problem in scholarly publication. As Rizzo Parse (1996) states in an editorial for the Nursing Science Quarterly:
Some inaccuracies […] clearly reflect on the scholarship of the author. For example, often authors change the wording of a direct quotation, cite the wrong page numbers, or misspell an author's name in the text and on the reference list. These areas are definitely the responsibility of the author, yet on random check, copy editors find many such inaccuracies. The responsibility for accuracy is a heavy one, since readers use the materials and often propagate the errors unknowingly. (p. 1)
It is difficult to know whether instances of inaccurate references in published research texts depend on writers' lack of knowledge of reference technique, or if the demands placed on scholars to publish lead to carelessness in the presentation of their research results. Nonetheless, a text with faulty referencing risks spreading erroneous facts and references, which may be detrimental both for the writer and for the scholar (not) being referred to.
The famous case of Dr O. Uplavici
An often cited example of faulty referencing concerns "Dr O. Uplavici" from the late nineteenth century. Below is a passage that relates this unfortunate inaccuracy, which may serve as an illustration of the danger of bad referencing technique.
In 1887 a medical authority named Jaroslav Hlava published an important paper on the role of amoebas in dysentery. The paper, written in Czech and titled "O Uplavici" ("On dysentery"), was later abstracted in the German journal Centralblatt für Bacteriologie und Parasitenkunde. Unfortunately, the journal omitted Hlava's name and entered the item under its Czech title. Subsequently, this mistake was repeated and compounded in various ways until 1910, when the paper appeared in the Index-Catalogue of Medical and Veterinary Zoology. The "author," O. Uplavici, was listed with a doctorate. The paper continued to be miscited until the error was discovered in 1938.
(Garfield, 1990, p. 369)
High error rate in scholarly publishing
A review of recent articles about scholarly referencing shows that the error rate in academic publishing is high. The problem has been the subject of a number of articles within Medicine and Health Studies, for instance.
Gosling, Cameron & Gibbons (2004) showed that in four journals in the field of manual therapy, the average error rate was 35.9% of the citations, which is said to be in line with other similar studies (pp. 37, 39). The errors detected in this study ranged from missing information in the reference list to quotation errors and failure to substantiate claims.
Unver, Senduran, Kocak, Gunal & Karatosun (2009) investigated four journals in the fields of general physical therapy and rehabilitation. Errors were found in 30.7% of the citations that were scrutinised (a total of 400 citations).
As reported in the article, "Most errors (48.0%) occurred in the author element, followed by the title (31.7%), journal (8.9%), page (5.7%), year (4.1%) and volume (1.6%)" (p. 742). Although some of these figures may not be considered high, the misspelling of authors' names can lead to citations indexes not picking up on them, for instance (p. 743).
Aim for referencing accuracy
Writers should strive for what Pecorari (2008) terms "transparent source use" (p. 59). By this she means that the reader should be able to see in what manner sources have been used by the writer.
If sources are used in a transparent way, they are easily identified by the reader and they are used in a manner which does justice to them. Pecorari lists three aspects that writers need to bear in mind:
(1) identity of the source: does the reader understand which sources materially influenced the new text?
(2) content: does the reader receive an accurate impression of what the source text said?
(3) language: does the reader understand whether the language comes from the source (i.e. whether the writer has used quotation or paraphrase)?
(p. 59, emphasis added)
Verify your references
It is important to double-check all references to make sure that the information is correctly reproduced. As pointed out by a Canadian university librarian,
Authors must take the responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of the references found in the bibliographies of their articles, even if this means rechecking each reference against the original before submitting an article for publication. Librarians should be consulted if the original publication is no longer at hand and there is any doubt about the accuracy of a reference. Working together it should be possible to improve the accuracy rate of references. It is worth the effort. (Harper, 1991, p. 380)
The discussion of reference accuracy is far from new. In 1916, the New York Medical Journal published an article by a library assistant at the New York Academy of Medicine, whose advice is still relevant. His main point was that while careless writers may save time for themselves, they are wasting time for their readers:
Verifying references means work, sometimes a good deal of work; but if your article and bibliography are to be worth anything they should be worth the work to make them so […] the correct reference becomes a time saver, a short cut through the hills of print. Wherefore I say again, Verify your references! (Place, 1916, p. 699)
A note on the use of second-hand sources
Writers must be careful when using second-hand information; as a writer you should preferably refer only to sources that you have actually read yourself. If you need to refer to a fact or statement referred to by someone else, you must account for the original source, as well as for the source where you found a reference to it.
Reference styles vary somewhat in the way second-hand sources are accounted for.