There was a time when citations were almost nonexistent even in academic work. Today the word academic is not applied to anything that’s not full of citations. It drives me nuts.
In my teens I remember writing a paper where the teacher required a minimum of five citations. It seemed arbitrary and irritating to me so as a small act of rebellion I made the first citation something like, “My own mind”. A childish and arrogant move to be sure, but I stand by the protest at the heart of it. We were asked to write a paper making an argument on a topic. Yet we were graded in large part by how many citations we had, regardless of the weight and cogency. If I made a compelling case based on the internal logic of my argument, I could not get an ‘A’ unless I also had five citations, no matter how disconnected and useless the citations. The academic world isn’t as bad as that class, but sometimes it’s not far off.
I understand the point of citations. You want to maintain intellectual honesty and respectfully acknowledge those upon whose ideas you’ve built your own. Unless you are doing a survey of literature or a study on a specific text, all of this seems possible in simple sentence form within the body of your work rather than via formal citation. When formalized, a subtle citation seduction can sweep in and impresses readers, clouding their judgement of the content itself. The appeal to authority or the demonstration of how common an idea is often becomes an argument for it’s validity. I’ve even heard academics mock papers simply because they lack a sufficient number of citations, without addressing any of the ideas.
You might argue that all of those problems are problems with the way readers and writers use citations, not the system itself. There is some truth to that, but I also think the formalization of the system has much to do with it. When you are trained to rigorously cite everything and stop mid-sentence for footnotes*, the power of the argument suffers, and the readability definitely declines. It also carries traces of the false and dangerous notion that ideas are scarce like physical property, having but one owner. Citing someone implies they were the originator of the idea, which is almost never the case. A great comedy sketch would be a scene in which a thinker was forced to cite everything, including the sources for the citations, and the sources of the sources, etc. Tying an argument to a single source can be just as misleading as not tying it to anyone.
Prior to the formalization of citations thinkers still got credit for their work. It’s not difficult to mention in the body of a text inspirations or sources. It’s not difficult to add a “Further Reading” list at the end. Both of these better reflect the truth of the situation, that all thinkers through time and space are engaged in a kind of great conversation, responding to and building on one another. We all know that none of us is spinning original ideas absent outside inspiration. We are part of a lineage. If you read C.S. Lewis, for example, you have no trouble seeing the influences and ideas of Milton. Sometimes Lewis mentions him by name, often he does not. There aren’t citations to speak of (one of the reasons Lewis is considered popular instead of academic), but there is no lack of respect or pretension to originating ideas that came from elsewhere.
Citations sometimes seem more, not less arrogant to me than their absence. They imply that anything not cited was perfectly original. They imply a neat and tidy set of ideas, disciplines, and intellectual evolution. If we’re honest, we can’t even remember our own intellectual development enough to source and cite the origin of many of our ideas.
This is not about not giving credit. It’s not about being lazy. In fact, it’s about pushing oneself to give credit in the much more difficult way. To work it into the writing in a way that’s not awkward or disruptive or overly formal. It’s about forming excellent and clear arguments that bring something new to the table, but that any intelligent person can see emerge from a larger tradition or body of knowledge. It’s about intriguing and leading people to that body of knowledge rather than just listing it by publication date and publisher next to a tiny number.
I try not to cite as a discipline. Most of my writing is in blogs and articles so there isn’t much need to cite anyway, or much cost to me for not citing, but after my initial youthful distaste for the undue respect given to citations qua citations, I gave myself this rule to see what would happen. Everything I write comes from some other set of ideas or thinkers I’ve encountered. My goal is to give credit and respect generously, and it almost feels demeaning to stick a great work into a little footnote. If I can’t work their ideas into my own and, when I’m doing it more directly, communicate that I’m doing it, I think I’m missing something.
This is not a wholesale protest against the practice of citation. It has uses, and probably many that I’m ignorant of since I’m not an academic. My claim is simply that it’s over-used and that writing – especially academic writing – and thinking often suffer for it.
*I also hate footnotes