I’m just wrapping up a couple of projects that required me to move into a new field and so I’ve been thinking about the challenges of making sure you are reading and then citing the right sources. For PhD students, working out what needs to be cited can be a learning curve, getting the balance right between demonstrating wide familiarity with the field and keeping it relevant to your topic. Becoming an outsider again reminds me of the skills I learned on the inside, so I’m sharing them in case they help you!
Getting into a new field is challenging. You need to read widely, and feel confident you have surveyed the literature well enough. You can’t claim you have made an original contribution to knowledge without knowing what the knowledge already is!
So the early stages of research are about trying to find everything relevant, and then reading it and taking notes. The reading may only be a skim and the notes might just be a few words, but you do need to have an idea about a very big number of papers.
In fact, you almost certainly can’t include everything you have read! There are limits of space, and some publications specifically limit your notes and bibliography, and even in a thesis you don’t have endless space and scope to cite everyone. There are also limits to the reader’s attention, you don’t want to overwhelm them with so much content that is only partially relevant.
Okay, so we’re starting to see that you need criteria for citation.
Here’s how I select what I’m going to cite, and how I’m going to cite it.
1. The obvious ones.
The huge book by the leader in your field that is exactly on this topic? Of course you’ll include that.
This helps us see what we consider ‘obvious’:
- written by a famous, influential or foundational author that everyone has read, and everyone expects you to have read
- extended and significant work on the topic
- work that shares the same (or very similar) focus, approach or content as your research.
These are the kinds of works you should get from an undergrad reading list and a straightforward literature search by typing your key words into Google Scholar. You’ll probably also get these sources by noticing the works that are referenced regularly in other articles and books. All of these need to be cited, no matter how tight your word count.
You should probably include your supervisors’ work and the work of any expected examiners or reviewers. If they are the right person to lead or review your research, they should be someone who is an expert in the area! If they aren’t worth citing, they may not be the right person to assess your work.
If you get feedback that you need to include a work, then you need to include it. Relevant authorities consider the citation influential, significant or relevant, and so you should generally take their word for it.
So far, so basic.
2. The supporting cast
Here things start to be a bit more negotiable. There are lots of ways your research might be parallel or intersecting or draw on similar threads to other research. Because the connection between your research and theirs is looser, there are a lot more potential articles to read, and probably too many to cite.
How do you decide what to include and exclude? Ask the following questions:
- does it add necessary material to your argument that isn’t already in your ‘obvious’ literature?
- does it demonstrate that your approach is considered important or standard in another field even though it’s unusual in yours?
- does it offer useful vocabulary, concepts or data to make your points?
These citations are ‘supporting’ in that they help strengthen your central thesis.
3. The ones where other people have done the work, so you don’t have to
Every piece of research needs to decide what is original, and what has already been done and doesn’t need repeating. We usually define the ‘gap’ in the literature by outlining the publications that surround it.
There are some sentence skeletons that you can use here to help you decide. Only include the citation if it helps you complete these sentences:
- ‘For a full explanation of the background, see ….’
- ‘The later stages of this process are also relevant, as fully explored by ….’
- ‘Many scholars such as …. have already described ….’
- ‘Other examples of this include …, as studied by …’
My criteria for inclusion here is usually, ‘If my focus was that other topic, the ‘obvious’ sources to include would be…’
These kinds of citations help define and justify your ‘gap’, as well as focus your contribution.
The majority of what you read will turn out to only be tangentially relevant, so you should expect to leave a lot of your reading out from this group.
4. The ones who don’t agree with you
No field of scholarship has total consensus on every aspect, especially not at the cutting edge. That means not all your sources will agree with you.
See this old-but-gold post ‘Building your argument in the corpses of your enemies’ for how and when to use opposing positions in your work. Here I want to think about how you decide which opponents to include.
I find this question takes more judgement and so it’s worth talking to your supervisor about it!
Some citations will be needed to help you build your current argument:
- The work that helps you explain your original contribution. ‘Most scholarship in this area has claimed …, but I will demonstrate …’
- If another scholar said your project or focus wasn’t important. ‘While this area has been ignored by scholars such as …,’
- To demonstrate that the field has moved on. ‘Up until the 1980s, researchers believed …., but more recent scholarship has suggested ….’
Sometimes it can be tempting to include fringe scholars who are egregiously wrong, but I would tend to leave them out. This isn’t the internet. There’s no value in a pointless flame war.
Similarly, I would quietly avoid critically citing any scholars known to be vindictive or aggressive. You are a tiny minnow in the scholarly pond right now, no need to rile up any sharks. If they are major scholars in your field, find an anodyne point where you mostly agree and cite them there.
A lot of the time, your disagreements will simply mean your research isn’t particularly similar, so the research can been excluded as not sufficiently close or relevant.
5. The rest
There is so much literature, you won’t be able to include it all. That’s fine! No-one expects you to.
I, too, can do a literature search in my library repository and come up with thousands of results in a few seconds. The time, effort and brain power is in refining down those results.
Do however keep notes about the sources you read, but decided not to include. Maybe in your reference manager, a notebook, or a literature review matrix. If you change your mind, or you get feedback that you need more citations, you can easily find works that you have already read, and add them back in.
You may want to use the sources that don’t belong in your thesis for another project. Sometimes I realise that a big body of scholarship that I think is awesome but just won’t quite fit into this article is the foundation of my next publication.
You also need to let go of your reading FOMO (in our PhD Survival Guide, we call it JOMA, ‘Just One More Article’ syndrome.) You will not be able to cover every publication that is vaguely related to your topic. There are PDFs on your desktop that you will never have time to read.
Even if you plan to use a strategy like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s ‘saturation’ method, there is a lot you can exclude for being not relevant.
I’d be more concerned if you didn’t have anything left over. If your reading list and citation list perfectly overlapped, I would suspect you haven’t read nearly enough to know what the major and most relevant works are. I wouldn’t be convinced that your project truly addresses a gap in the literature and not just a gap in your reading, either.
6: The final check
As an emerging scholar, you probably will find yourself needing to cite the big names in your field even if you find them problematic or unhelpful. (But maybe you don’t! Ask your supervisor!)
However, there is a growing movement to see citation practices as political (following Sara Ahmed and others). You don’t need to include everyone in the whole world, but check your patterns of inclusion—are they on valid academic grounds, or are they based on the identities of the scholars who do the work?
I’m not unaware that the ‘obvious’ sources often means work by famous scholars, who are more likely to be charismatic, male professors at elite US and UK universities—a very small subset of the scholars working in any field.
Your citation list is, in fact, creating a model of your field. I work in fields that are majority female, but the citation lists are often majority male—this gender inequality creates an inaccurate map of the scholars doing valuable work in my area.
If you are writing about a particular group, check your citation lists to ensure that there is space for them to talk about and theorise themselves, not just have outsiders speak about them. It always makes me cringe to see an article about, say, Asian international students that doesn’t cite any Asian scholars.
A thesis is a long document, but it shouldn’t be rambling, pointless or unfocused. The same is true of what you include in your citations. From experience, I can assure you that if you are reading widely and deeply in your field, even if you try to be super selective about what you include, you will still end up with a lot of citations, and your bibliography will still be extensive!
For other relevant posts:
Building your argument in the corpses of your enemies
Turn your notes into writing using the Cornell Method
When reading makes you feel like an imposter
Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash