drive by citations

I’ve been grading the (in general very good) papers by the grad students in my culture seminar, and I’ve noticed a phenomenon I don’t remember from prior seminars. I’m naming it “drive by citations.” These are, essentially, references to a work that make a very quick appearance, extract a very small, specific point from the work, and move on without really considering the existence or depth of connection between the student’s work and the cited work. This is an issue, in part, because the claim or finding  being cited is often much more nuanced and complex than the quick way it is used in the citing work. I’m wondering if this is the result of the increasing availability of online resources like Google Scholar and such, which make it easy to find and cite materials without spending much time considering them.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

14 thoughts on “drive by citations”

  1. Wow. I’ve tried to get my undergrads into the novel idea of ‘using’ quotes but this is exactly what I’ve noticed in my culture course… ‘Drive by quotes’ is even the term I use! (I hate to say it, but I think I got it from a certain right-wing radio personality.) I’ll say this: for some students it’s probably not Google Scholar, just Google. This is something I’m going to focus on more next term.


  2. Well, it seems to me that drive by citations are pretty darn common in the published literature, alongside the gratuitous citations. By gratuitous citations I mean those with only some vague ritualistic attribution as in “employs rational action theory” or “resources matter in social movements.” Several times early in my career I looked up all the references in some papers and found close to a 50% error rate, either a reference that was simply wrong (i.e. volume number did not match the year) or a citation that said the article said something it did not say, although you might have thought it would say that from the title only. I have found similar patterns in more recent literature searches: when I actually read the cited articles, I am often struck by how different they are from what you would have thought from the citation. I am, of course, particularly sensitive to both of these in citations to my own work, as well over half the citations to my own work are either so vague as to mean nothing at all or attribute to me claims or results that just are not there.


  3. I agree with OW that this is likely a result of students trying to emulate published articles. When submitting an article for publication, authors likely want editors and reviewers to know that they have read and considered a wide variety of work, even if that work is not particularly relevant to their central claims. By following this model, students also demonstrate that they have “done a lot of work” on their paper.


  4. as a grad student, i’ve personally found this incredibly frustrating. that, in andrew’s words, i have to give up in depth consideration of the citations i make, in favor of the drive-by sort that end up being basically meaningless proof i’ve ‘done a lot of work’. in my experience i’ve had to prove this more in work i want to publish than in term papers, which feels like a regression in quality to me.


  5. I am also a grad student drive by citer. It is incredibly frustrating. I hate it. I also agree with olderwoman. When I was writing the lit review for my master’s thesis, I read everything cited to see if it was accurate. Many times it wasn’t. Part of the problem is that we have to cite every sentence or at least every general idea. Once you get into discussing the nuanced findings that relate to you’re specific topic, it isn’t as necessary to to this. But when you are leading up to it and justifying the research, it is almost impossible not to. And the others are right. We learn it from the published literature. We also learn it from past criticism. We are told not to cite the same person too frequently. We are also not supposed to cite things that are too old, which forces us to use secondary citations, which I have also found to be common in the literature. I made a resolution at the beginning of the semester not to do this. And to understand and have thoroughly read everything I cite. I broke it.


  6. In addition to what olderwoman and ellen3b note, there’s also the pressure from reviewers. How often have we all gotten a review that tells us we need to reference things? And what do we do? Simply insert a reference at the end of the most appropriate sentence. It’s ridiculous. But it happens. Reviewers engage not just in evaluating arguments and research, but citation gate-keeping – by which I mean demanding that authors reference somewhat relevant but not necessary work. And we give in to get things published. I find that often comments such as, “you need to reference the relevant literature” are not “you need to structure your argument around these ideas” but instead, “you need to insert references to things I’ve written/think are important… the argument can stay as it is.”


  7. I’m realizing as I read this that I’ll bet Andrew was talking about pulling something out of context to attribute to a writer something different from her intention. Whereas I’m thinking about brief, fairly uninformative citations. I’ve fairly often written “drive-by citations” (but maybe they would be better called brief and uninformative?) for works that I’ve actually read carefully and have a lot of criticisms of. But unless the critical point is important enough to justify taking up two or three paragraphs for explaining why there is a problem with the article, I just end up noting what it says its finding is, and leave it at that. You cannot actually seriously review a large literature and have space in an article (or book) for anything else. On the other hand,the only way research accumulates is if you read and build on other people’s work.


    1. I don’t agree that you can’t review a large literature in an article. You can’t *summarize* a large literature. The lit review just has to closely focus on the aspects of previous word that are directly related to the question at hand. One of the main problems in articles I review is front-back continuity, where the lit review introduces issues that aren’t pertinent to the analysis, or the results focus on issues that aren’t raised in advance. A rambling lit review is a killer for this, because the readers minds are all over the discipline by the time they get to the analysis – which ultimately disappoints.


  8. Guilty as charged. It is Google Scholar, and not plain Google that I’m using. It’s the eternal worry of having a term paper sent through turnitin and being pinged for plagiarism that leads to me doing a citation on every paragraph.


  9. When it’s careless or superficial, drive-by citations are a hindrance. However, there is much good sociological writing that uses many citations to either allow readers to read further or to show the lineage of the ideas in a way that deepens the understanding of the work. Cheap citations devalue this tradition, leading to awful practices like editors demanding an arbitrary number of references be removed. It turns out it’s the quality, not the quantity, of the citations that matters.


  10. I’m a big fan of skipping the canned lit review and using footnotes to specify one’s relations to cited sources. Creates a multi-layered text that gets right to it, yet rewards careful readers without cluttering the analysis – sort of a print hypertext.


  11. Drive-by citations seem to be the standard, not the rule, in most disciplines. Look at all the people who cite first papers (e.g., Lucas (1976) for asset pricing) only because everyone else did.

    It’s shown the lineage, not so much as a reference.


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