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.
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.
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.
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.
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!