Citation… tedious but necessary

Hyland, K. (1999) Academic Attribution: Citation and the Construction of Disciplinary Knowledge. Applied Linguistics 20 (3), pp341 – 367

Wow. Ken Hyland has written so much stuff about writing about stuff. And now I’m going to write about Ken Hyland’s writings about writing. Again. In a minute.

my eyes look like this

my eyes look like this

It’s taken a while to get down to this because I’ve just had laser eye surgery. Not only has this meant I haven’t been able to stare at a screen or book for long, but I’ve also been also been regularly drawn into paranoid web searches about halos, haze, ‘floaters’ and other symptoms, and/or compelled to run outside and compare the clarity of number plates with my right and left eyes. On top of this, I’ve also this week been diagnosed with degenerative arthritis of the spine, which I’m quite bummed out about as it means I have to give up running – my grand passion – and can’t sit still for long. So, on the whole… hard to concentrate on anything much.

But… I’ve got a book review to write in the next week so I need to get cracking with the WrAP reading. The good news is I’m not too far off actually finishing the sodding book, and it’s really been rather good. One of those books that is relevant to virtually every conversation you find yourself in.

According to Ken (we *must* be on first name terms by now), “academics generally tend to see research and rhetorical activity as separate” (p343). He doesn’t actually support this claim with a citation, so it’s not clear where it comes from. Clearly *he* doesn’t see it as separate. Neither do I. All my scholarly activity to date has mostly been just me writing about stuff I’ve done. But this made me consider whether it would be possible to contract out this rather tedious and difficult aspect of research. Some of the large-scale, cross-institutional work I’ve been involved in – particularly with the JISC Developing Digital Literacies project – has utilised ‘synthesis consultants’ whose job it is to draw together and present the outcomes of a programme of work into a final report. JISC work is often led by e-learning developers and managers rather than those who would identify themselves as ‘researchers’ or ‘academics’, and it is presumably a more efficient way of drawing together outcomes from a programme of separate projects. However, the projects *are* very much separate, and those who lead them have certain beliefs and attitudes to their peers in the community and their ideas; beliefs and attitudes that form the context of and the motivation for the work they do. This is unlikely to be fully articulated if the work is written up by an external consultant.

How – and to what extent – are these beliefs and attitudes communicated through citation? In this paper, Hyland compares the use of citation in the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ disciplines, and finds both clear, general differences and interesting exceptions and outliers.

There are two key purposes to citation – one is to support or justify the claims being made (e.g. through contextualising the issue, establishing credibility and/or showing allegiance), and the other is to demonstrate the novelty of one’s position. These two may sound like they directly oppose each other, but they need to occur in tandem. For research to be valued in any disciplinary community, it needs to appear both novel and sound.

However, novelty and soundness mean slightly different things in the hard and soft disciplines, which means that citation plays a different role in each. Let’s take the ‘hard’ disciplines first. The general view in the hard disciplines is that knowledge is there to be discovered. It may not be possible to ever know the absolute truth, but the truth is ‘out there’ and it is the researcher’s job to try to get closer to it through appropriate and rigorous enquiry. Gilbert (1976, p285) describes the author in this context as a ‘messenger relaying the truth from nature’. As a result, procedures and methods may be privileged over the author, and external citation structures (i.e. separated from the claim by brackets or footnotes) are commonplace. As the primary purpose of citation in hard disciplines is to support the specific findings of the writer, paraphrasing is the norm over direct quotation in order to frame the argument in the specific context of the study in question.

As with anything, there are notable exceptions. Hyland draws on the example of molecular biology and the ‘colourful’ characters of James Watson and Francis Crick. Apparently, in a Channel 4 documentary in 2003, Watson said: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.” Now, Watson actually said this to me in 1996 at the University of Portsmouth, in response to a question I asked him about genetic modification. I thought it was a bit edgy at the time (although my 16-year-old self would have been massively appreciative of some pretty genes). Genetics is a subject that ignites strong emotions and raises moral dilemmas; it has an inextricable relationship with philosophy, theology and the softer of disciplines. Biologists like James Watson and Richard Dawkins have built their careers on deliberate provocation, arrogance and the breaking of ice on the biggest questions of our time. So it is no wonder that their disciplines do not follow all the standard patterns of citation.

A final point to note with the hard disciplines is that, as time passes, the evidence for certain phenomena may become irrefutable, for example in the case of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Planck’s constant. At this point acknowledgement through citation will often cease. The theory has become accepted by and embedded into the discipline.

In contrast to this, in the softer disciplines – especially philosophy – nothing is ever considered proven. Steps are continually being retraced and even the criteria for establishing or refuting claims remains inconsistent. The author is often privileged and represented with a stance of their own through the use of internal citation structures and a range of reporting verbs (e.g. concedes, proposes, asserts) that communicate the strength of the author’s claim and/or the degree of the writer’s agreement with it. Tenses may also be used as a rhetorical device; as one moves from present simple (proposes) to present perfect (has proposed) to past tense (proposed), a greater distance is implied between the original author and the writer.

Hyland’s discussion of reporting verbs reminded me of my stint as a resident tutor at the University of Bath, where we were often required to document incidents and altercations involving our 18-year-old charges. All the tutors were doing MAs or PhDs, and it was always easy to identify who had written the reports from the previous day simply from the verbs they (over)used – everyone had their favourite! One – a German microbiologist – stuck to  ‘alleged’. For another (psychologist, British) it was ‘reported’. The mathematician simply wrote ‘said’. It occurred to me how much more subtly nuanced we could have made our incident reports had we given it due consideration…

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