Do I have a citation obsession?

I discuss source citations in this blog a lot. I know. I just can’t help it.

But academics in other fields are not above obsessing over citations either.

Kurt Schick, a writing teacher at James Madison University, posted “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!” in the Commentary section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mr. Schick agrees with many of my readers, I am sure:

What a colossal waste. Citation style remains the most arbitrary, formulaic, and prescriptive element of academic writing taught in American high schools and colleges. Now a sacred academic shibboleth, citation persists despite the incredibly high cost-benefit ratio of trying to teach students something they (and we should also) recognize as relatively useless to them as developing writers.[1]

Mr. Schick decries the time and energy that universities spend teaching how to cite in specific formats: MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, etc. In his opinion citation formats are nearly indistinguishable and relatively simplistic:

Why, then, could we not simply ask students to include a list of references with the essential information? Why couldn’t we wait to infect them with citation fever until they are ready to publish (and then hand them the appropriate style guide, which is typically no more difficult to follow than instructions for programming your DVR)?

In Mr. Schick’s opinion, citation format is unimportant until publication. I have heard this same argument used in the genealogy field on numerous occasions. (Of course, Mr. Schick refers mostly to published sources, whereas we genealogists should be using mostly original record sources.)

Instead of teaching citations, universities and colleges should instead “reinvest time wasted on formatting to teach more-important skills like selecting credible sources, recognizing bias or faulty arguments, paraphrasing and summarizing effectively, and attributing sourced information persuasively and responsibly.” These are all very important skills, I agree. However, in genealogy, why separate the two processes?

To me an accurate source citation is more than just how we know “where we got the information.” It’s more than how a reader can reproduce your research or assess the quality of your sources.

The internal process of a researcher creating an accurate source citation develops certain necessary evalution skills. In order to fully cite a record source–whether a published item, a government record, or an unpublished manuscript–you must understand certain things about the record. Who created it? When and where was it created? Where is it currently stored? How does this record fit into the larger collection of records of which it is a part?

These questions are among the five things you have to know about every record. In other words, taking the time to create a full and accurate citation itself inspires a deeper understanding of that source. I believe that this th reasons that the Genealogical Proof Standard contains the condition about citing your sources separate from the other four conditions, stated after searching for relevant sources and before analysing and correlating the information. Creating the citation allows the researcher to evaluate the source itself, rather than solely focusing on the information that source contains.

This explains my seeming obsession with citations.

SOURCE:

[1] Kurt Schick, “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!,” in Commentary, Chronicle of Higher Education, posted 30 October 2011 (http://chronicle.com/section/Commentary/44/ : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

For another response, see also Carol Fisher Saller, “‘Citation Obsession’? Dream On,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 3 September 2011 (http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

2 responses to this post.

  1. I do not yet have sufficient skill with citations to be comfortable with the way I present them. I have developed my personal templates, which I follow for the sake of consistency; these templates are based on “Evidence Explained” to the very best of my ability.

    In each citation I evaluate the PHYSICAL state of the material (whether it is easy to read; whether pages are missing, etc. The value of the source as evidence is tracked elsewhere.

    This is the best I can do (so far); so after I have done this, I go on to the next task without undo worrying. Sometimes the next task is to study a blog such as “Planting the Seeds” so that I can continue to learn.

    I agree with you that we must have consistent citations that will help other people follow and evaluate our work. This as an essential part of producing both a good family tree and/or a good family history.

    Sue McCormick

    Reply

  2. Everyone wrestles with citations. This became clear to me when I submitted some difficult citations to a list for review. Most of the members of the list were professional genealogists. Often though, I came away with my head spinning. Everyone seemed to have their own opinion on how to craft a good citation. Whatever the case, citations are an important element in quality research for all of the reasons you mentioned.

    Reply

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