Minor ethical aspects of citation

Fri 23 Feb 2007 03:08 PM

Spawning references is an important scholarly strategy:* Begin with a recent article or book on your topic of interest. Look at the list of works cited. Go look at those articles and books. Repeat until you know enough about the topic, you have a sufficient number of references, or you are too exhausted to think about it anymore.

The method only works if citations focus the subsequent search. It is stymied if authors do not cite one another, and also if authors cover their own vagueness and imprecision in an indiscriminate blizzard of citations. The latter is more common than the former in philosophy of science. In defense of a specific claim, an author cites a large book without so much as a range of pages. When I spawn the reference and cannot find the claim, perhaps it was somewhere else in the book. (Large and wide-ranging books like Philip Kitcher's Advancement of Science are typically cited in this imprecise way.)

It seems to me that responsible citation requires that (a) an author distinguish between those sources that are especially important, influential, and central and those that are peripheral; an author should cite the relevant literature, but not as an undifferentiated flurry. Further, that (b) an author should be as precise as possible when marshaling support for a specific claim or pointing to where an issue is further developed.

Minding these imperatives is a pain in the butt, but minding onerous demands is part of the job.**

* I was never explicitly taught it, though, so the monicker is my own concoction.

** As you might guess, this post was prompted by frustration with a specific text. Decorum restrains me from naming it.