active citation

Over the weekend I was at a workshop on journal practices convened by the editor-in-chief of Science and sponsored by the Center for Open Science in Virginia.* The larger cause of Open Science is seeking for greater transparency in research practice, something which anybody who knows me knows I think is badly needed. One idea that was raised at the meeting that I had never heard of before was “active citation.” Active citation is not about transparency in research practice, but greater accountability for our use of the work of others in making the arguments of a paper.

The basic premise of active citation is that when you cite a source, you need to indicate how it is that the source says what you say it says.

You can do this by either linking to the specific part of the text, or by linking to a more general part of the text and offering a short supplemental-materials-like explanation of your interpretation.

I’m not sure I buy this as a good idea for sociology in general–already I believe that sociology journals push authors into a scientifically unhealthy ratio of time-spent-crafting-arguments to time-spent-doing-actual-empirical-research. At the same time, I do think it probably would serve to make papers more carefully argued and ultimately better.

* Only sociologist there. We need to step up our game.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

7 thoughts on “active citation”

  1. Sociologists have actively bad (read inaccurate, sloppy, misleading) citation practices. Every time I’ve gone to the trouble to look up citations I have ALWAYS found outright errors, as well as omissions of relevant material from the cited source. This has been true since I first looked up citations for a term paper in 1970. In the late 1970s, I remember being shocked when a friend who’d had a paper accepted by an MLA journal had the editorial assistant call her up and question her citations, saying e.g. “I looked at the work you cited, and I don’t think it says what you said it said.” What a concept. Accountability for citations. And, honestly, when I’ve actually gone to look up the originals, I’ve almost always found useful information there that wasn’t in the citing source, not to mention the aforementioned actual errors and misattributions.

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  2. At least one researcher has tried to check his own citations: “To help ensure that the academic papers were summarized accurately, my research assistants and I attempted to contact all of the researchers whose work is cited in this book. We sent e-mails to each author we could locate, with my summaries of their research, and asked whether I had summarized their findings faithfully and whether I had missed any relevant studies. In cases where authors did not respond, we sent a follow-up e-mail. This process lasted several years. I estimate that we reached about 80 percent of the authors.” Armstrong, J. Scott. (2010). Persuasive advertising: Evidence-based principles. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (page 4)

    Admirable, astonishing—but a practice unlikely to be widely adopted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think reading the texts themselves and not relying on citations to citations is sufficient scholarship. Letting people clarify what they really meant in an article, and not what it actually says, seems to me to be opening a different can of worms. Although I suppose if the goal is to do a meta-analysis of a research literature, it does make sense to get the actual research details and not just the incomplete published information.

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  3. There is a very nice piece on “urban legends” in science (spinach is not a good source of iron) that I use in the grad methods course I teach regularly that attempts to instill some better citation habits in the students. But we should probably try to get a broader buy-in to this and other related concerns (replication/replicabiliy, misuse of significance testing, etc) if we want sociology to “up its game”. Get an ASA task force? A session at the Seattle meetings might be a start (I think its too late for Chicago already)

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