The Functions of References

When and why are references given? In this section, the functions of references in academic writing are explained.

References in academic writing have different functions. As Taylor (2002) states,

References may be used as the ultimate authority upon which to base arguments. Alternatively, they may be a temporary authority whose validity you intend to challenge or they may be considered as obviously wrong. Herein lies the essence of comparison and contrast between the authors' findings and those of others. (p. 167)

The "comparison and contrast" brought up by Taylor are key issues in referencing. In order to present their ideas and findings, writers have to discuss them in comparison or in contrast to previous research. 

A reference should always have a clear function and it must be relevant to the argument of the text.

Instructional video from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

Referencing is a basis for academic writing

By acknowledging all sources that have been used in the preparation of a text, writers form part of the ongoing exchange of ideas and data that signifies the academic community.

In fact, as linguist Ken Hyland (2004) has argued, "appropriate textual practices are crucial to the acceptance of claims" (p. 21). By this he means that the way we write is essential for the understanding of the research that we aim to present in our writing:

Explicit reference to prior literature is a substantial indication of a text's dependence on contextual knowledge and thus a vital piece in the collaborative construction of new knowledge between writers and readers. The embedding of arguments in networks of references not only suggests an appropriate disciplinary orientation, but reminds us that statements are invariably a response to previous statements and are themselves available for further statements by others. (p. 21)

In order for a text to function as such a "response to previous statements and [to be] available for further statements by others," (p. 21) it must follow the reference conventions of its discipline and of the type of text. In other words, writers need to conform to the tradition in which they write.

This is one reason why supervisors pay so much attention to formal aspects of academic essay writing. By teaching their students how a scholarly text is structured and in what manner references are given, supervisors guide them into the research community of their field.

Instructional video from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

When and why are references given?

References are given whenever a source, which supplies some kind of fact or evidence, is used. In most academic texts, references have at least one of the following, sometimes overlapping, functions:

To acknowledge previous research in the field  

Writers need to show their awareness of previous and related research within the field. In some disciplines, essays and research papers have a designated part for previous research, whereas such acknowledgements may be given anywhere in the text in other disciplines.

The examples below show how authors acknowledge previous research in their fields. By referring to previous, relevant, studies, writers present opposing views within the field while giving background information on the topic. In doing this, they also provide a basis for their own argument.

Example: Presenting opposing views (click to expand/contract)

The following extract, which comes from The Journal of Social Psychology, deals with attitudes towards the importance of punctuality (time keeping). In the opening of their article, the authors wish to present two opposing views within their research field by making brief references to previous key studies:

In pioneer research on punctuality, Dudycha found that men tended to be more punctual than women (Dudycha, 1937), but that more women than men mentioned consideration for others as important in the context of punctuality (Dudycha, 1938). Consistency in punctuality across different situations was not very high and appeared to depend on the similarity between situations (Dudycha, 1939). In contrast, Richard and Slane's (1990) findings led them to conclude that "punctuality appears to be a persistent personality characteristic that is measurable by subjective or objective methods" (p. 401).  

(Kanekar & Vaz, 1993, p. 377)

Comment: The reference style used here is an author-date system, which gives the year of publication in parenthesis, thereby automatically informing the reader about the time span between the two opposing views that are presented.

Note too, that the first researcher referred to (Dudycha) is described as a pioneer, thereby establishing his early importance in the field. The later study (by Richard and Slane) is distinguished from that of Dudycha by the phrase "In contrast".

Example: Presenting background facts (click to expand/contract)

The extract below comes from an article on evolutionary responses to anthropogenic changes to ecosystems. It comes from a journal titled Molecular Ecology. By referring to previous research in the field, the authors provide a factual background to their own discussion:

Humanity already captures and uses more than half of the available fresh water on a global basis (Postel et al. 1996), largely through diversions and impoundments to rivers (Vitousek et al. 1997). Major dams typically remain in place for decades to centuries, producing long-lasting changes to natural ecosystems. These effects are pervasive: approximately 40 000 'large' (> 15 m tall) dams are in place worldwide (ICOLD 1998), and the vast majority of major rivers are impounded (McCully 2001). These impoundments have a particularly dramatic effect on the distribution, abundance, and life histories of migratory aquatic species (Merritt & Wohl 2002).  

(Waples, Zabel, Scheuerell, & Sanderson, 2007, p. 84-85)

Comment: Here, too, an author-date reference style has been used. The sources referred to are placed in chronological order, thereby providing a brief overview of the progress within the research field.

To position new research in relation to previous publications

A central aim of research is to expand knowledge. In order to show what is new, scholarly writers need to position their work in relation to previous research in the field. 

This positioning is carried out in different ways, depending on discipline and text type. A common method is to present previous research and then present new facts that either expand the knowledge presented by earlier research, or, indeed, contradict it.

In order to show what is new in their essay or article, writers thus need to acknowledge what has previously been published within the field.

Example: Arguing against previous research (click to expand/contract)

The extract below comes from The Historical Journal and deals with women teachers in nineteenth-century England:

Susan Skedd has suggested that it seems paradoxical that boarding schools for girls were multiplying during the Georgian period, when Evangelical ideals of domestic femininity were gaining currency.17 However, these ideals were not necessarily, as Skedd assumes, an obstacle to the expansion of schooling for girls. On the contrary, especially in the early years of the century, ideas about the religious mission of women strengthened the conviction of teachers like Jane Gardiner that their work was important and necessary. She saw her role as "to teach goodness" and rose everyday at 5 a.m. in order to study as preparation for her task of sending forth "solidly educated Christian women".18   


17Susan Skedd, "Women teachers and the expansion of girls' schooling in England, c. 1760-1820", in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus, eds., Gender in eighteenth century England (London, 1997), p. 103.
18Everilda Gardiner, Recollections of a beloved mother (London, 1842), pp. 4, 28.

(De Bellaigue, 2001, p. 967)

Comment: This journal uses a footnote style for references. The writer refers to a previous study ("Susan Skedd has suggested...") and then positions her own research against this publication. To prove her point, she supplies an example that contradicts what the earlier study has stated. By using verbs like "suggest" and "assume," the writer shows that she does not agree with the conclusions drawn in the previous study. She also highlights her own findings by using introductory tags such as "However" and "On the contrary".

As seen in the above example, one way of positioning oneself as a writer is to present a previous study and then argue against it by supplying information not used in the previous study.

For more information about the use of reporting verbs and introductory tags, see the AWELU sections called:

To present primary data to support the writer's claim

Depending on discipline, writers use different kinds of primary data to support their claims, and the use they make of such data will differ.

A research article within the fields of Medicine or Science will be backed up by clinical or experimental evidence (that is, evidence gathered and analysed for the study that is being reported). Similarly, a literary analysis will be backed up by textual evidence (that is, evidence from the text that is being analysed).

As practices vary between disciplines, students are advised to consult their supervisors regarding appropriate ways of presenting primary data.

Example: Presenting textual evidence (click to expand/contract)

This extract, from Research in African Literatures, discusses Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart (referred to as TFA below). The character discussed, Okonkwo, is the protagonist of the novel, which is set in the late nineteenth century in present-day Nigeria: 

I want, however, to draw attention to the ways in which reading of Okonkwo's crisis of masculinity becomes a metonymical figure for understanding the crisis of colonialism and the confrontation with racial difference. Formally, Okonkwo's desire to perform an adequate or superlative manliness propels both the plot in general and the specific climactic confrontation between the village and the District Commissioner, the representative of colonial authority. When the village meets to decide on its response to a Christian convert's murder of an ancestor, Okonkwo "had spoken violently to his clansmen [. . .]. And they had listened to him with respect. It was like the good old days again, when a warrior was a warrior," and a man was a man (TFA 176). When the District Commissioner's messengers arrive at the second village meeting, Okonkwo can only respond with the physical force that defines his understanding of masculinity. Okonkwo's crisis of sexual identity and difference precipitates the crisis of racial difference.  

(Counihan, 2007, p. 172)

Comment: The article writer quotes from Achebe's novel in order to exemplify her argument regarding Okonkwo, the protagonist. After the quote, she follows up with a brief explanation of the plot and then ends the passage with an analytical comment to prove her point. The parenthetical reference style used here is MLA.

Danger of over-referencing

It is important to consider the relevance of the references that are being used. In the hope of showing everything that the writer has read, a common beginner's mistake is to insert too many and, thereby, irrelevant references.

A common kind of over-referencing occurs when references are given to facts that can be seen as common knowledge; if readers to whom the text is directed can be expected to know a general fact that is being stated in the text, no reference is needed. Consequently, writers need to be aware of the audience for which they are writing.

Note that over-referencing does not strengthen the writer's argument but may have the opposite effect!

    Advice: Avoid over-referencing (click to expand/contract)

    The extract below, which comes from Dunleavy's book Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation (2003) contains advice on the issue of over-referencing:

    A classic "thesis paranoia" symptom is inserting supporting literature for every point, even ones that no one in their right mind would dispute or need to do further reading about, such as "The United Kingdom is a country with a long and chequered history (Davies, 1999; Trevelyan, 1966; Chesterton, 1923)." If you find this problem in your text, check whether you are overciting more generally. Later on an excessive overcautious referencing approach also signals "PhD thesis" immediately to journal editors and reviewers, and to book publishers. So it may make it harder than it otherwise would be to get your work published. Referencing details are also generally unattractive, so if overdone they can detract quite a lot from the "look and feel" of your text. (p. 122)