In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Good Citations

Citations really are needed. (Edited: XKCD)

Citations really are needed. (Edited: XKCD)

In the onyx palaces of academia, correct citations have several purposes. Citations are necessary to uphold intellectual integrity and prevent plagiarism, by referencing the earlier work on a line of inquiry.

Proper references also allow the reader to judge the weight and potency of evidence for a particular claim. The citations of a book or paper mean the reader can inspect the source: whether the article supports the author’s argumentation as intended, or has been otherwise misunderstood or misconstrued.


Online articles present an advancement in referencing. Rather than directing the reader to a book they may not own, and one that may not even sit within an institutional library, authors can direct their readers to other pages through hyperlinks. Rather than trawling through tomes, the referenced material may be summoned instantaneously. There are problems with online citations: as websites churn through URLs, hyperlinks can decay. This means that these digital references have a half-life, and should be updated whenever a dead link is highlighted to the author.

Citations should be proactively provided. On the periphery of blogging’s howling wilderness, important claims — often authoritatively asserted — can be published without any reference at all. For instance, a Tumblr note against “diet culture” reads, denude of citation:

90% of eating disorders begins with a diet.
30% of all diets end in an eating disorder.
99% of dieters gain back all the weight and more.
Yo-yo dieting increases your chance of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and early death.
Diets are dangerous. Say no to diet culture.

The Ant’s Nest

Whilst directing readers towards general discussions on your blog of similar topics can be rewarding, authors may also link to themselves on specific, empirical claims. Instead of going straight towards a source, readers tumble through an ant’s nest of hyperlinks. This practice may garner more page-views, which benefits the blog owner if they receive advertising revenue or personal aggrandisement, but does little to enlighten readers.

An example of this nesting practice would be the blog of ‘heath at every size’ advocate and self-described “trained researcher” Ragen Chastain. In one article — entitled Failed at Dieting? Welcome to the Almost Everyone Club! — Ms Chastain makes multiple, specific claims about dietary failure rates. All seven hyperlinks in the main article lead to Ms Chastain’s Dances with Fat blog. Ms Chastain writes:

For the last 50 years the research that has been conducted regarding long term weight loss has shown that weight loss almost never works long term.

That provides a link to an article on the same blog by Ms Chastain, called Seriously, Weight Loss Doesn’t Work. The culmination of “the research that has been conducted regarding long term weight loss” is one article from CBC News, discussing the results of one study. At the end of this post, there is another self-link, which goes to: For Fat Patients and Their Doctors. Finally, this article provides online citations to multiple studies about dietary failure rates. A meta-analysis would have been simpler.

A fantastic example of good citations comes from the personal blog of environmental and political activist George Monbiot, who lists each citation in turn, providing the full URL (or journal description) for every reference.

In the Harvard Referencing style used at the University of Bath, online citations, such as electronic books, e-journal articles and websites, include the date of digital access. The question is whether, outside of research articles and studies, formal referencing benefits and illuminates readers.

Citations are necessary to tame wild suppositions, check hidden superstition and tether claims to the claws of reality. If our understanding is to advance at all, it must do so with evidence.



This entry was posted on March 9, 2015 by in Site-Keeping and tagged .
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