Getting referencing right: applying the 4 Cs

For a variety of reasons, I have been reflecting on principles that undergird good citation practice. So far I’ve come up with “the 4 Cs guide” (I say I’ve come up with them, as I’ve not done any reading on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this or something similar has co-evolved elsewhere).

When advising students or colleagues on appropriate organisation of their references at the end of a document, I encourage them to check that they’ve followed the 4 Cs guide:

Correct: Have they cited the correct sources? This might mean drilling back to the first occurrence of an observation (e.g. in the primary literature) rather than a review article. Clearly we don’t want to be encouraging people to cite the original paper if they’ve not read it, but you sometime see statements such as “Smith and Bloggs have shown…” when actually Smith and Bloggs wrote the review in which they discussed the experimental work of Ramone and Farnes-Barnes who made the observation described. Continue reading

Guide for Citing Audiovisual Materials

During the past couple of years I’ve been part of a working group set up by the British Universities Film and Video Council to draw up guidelines for the correct citation of Audiovisual. The fruits of our labours are published today.

The new guidelines offer recommendations for the correct citing of a wide range of media formats

The new guidelines offer recommendations for the correct citing of a wide range of media formats

In an era when increasing emphasis is being place on multimedia, it seems almost unbelievable that this is the first serious attempt anywhere in the world to produce an authoritative guide for what information to include when citing radio, film, TV and a plethora of other media.

As John Ellis, Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, has noted, “Citation exists so that you can find the source of any quotation. The rules have long since been worked out for print sources. However, for moving image and sound, no-one quite knows what to do, so references are usually imprecise and sometimes left out completely.This guide now makes it possible for any writer [including students] to lead their readers to the exact audiovisual source they are discussing.”

The process of producing the new guide has been fascinating (far more so than it might sound!) Once you start to scratch the surface you start to realise the vast range of the different sources, formats and so on that might need to be included. The guide is shared with the academic community in the knowledge that it will very likely need refining, especially as new formats for sharing AV information are developed. Nevertheless I’m proud of this first edition and encourage any of you who are using and citing audiovisual materials to refer to it and, where appropriate, to suggest refinements.

How DO you cite audiovisual materials correctly?

The BUFVC is conducting a survey about people's experience of citing AudioVisual materials

The BUFVC is conducting a survey about people’s experience of citing AudioVisual materials

Most of us feel reasonably comfortable with the conventions for citing books, journal articles and so on. There may be certain variability between journals regarding formatting (it has been argued that there are as many versions of Harvard as there are journals using “Harvard” for example), nevertheless there is fairly standard agreement about the core information that is needed.

What, however, are the rules if you need to cite a particular interview within the lunchtime news on a given day? Or the Director’s commentary that comes as a bonus with a bought DVD? Or, indeed, what about citing the film itself? What are the correct procedures for referencing these materials?

For the past 18 months  I have been part of a working group convened by the British Universities Film and Video Council to draw up an authoritative guide regarding citation of audiovisual materials. We’ve had some really interesting discussions about different media, different contexts and different purposes for the citation.

Our deliberations are drawing towards a close, but before they do the BUFVC is conducting a survey to check that we haven’t missed anything or come to any erroneous decisions. Therefore if you are reading this between 13th December 2012 and 14th January 2013 do please take the opportunity to fill out the survey – it doesn’t take very long and you get a chance to win vouchers to your favourite tax-avoiding online retailer! The survey itself can be found via this link (alternatively see here for more background info). Thanks.

Finding research articles that are worth finding

An enormous amount of scientific literature is generated each month

The world is awash with scientific papers. Even if we restricted a survey to research within biological sciences, I guestimate that there are more papers published each month than your average academic could be expected to read in a lifetime. In these rich fields of information, how are students unfamiliar with the genre  to develop the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff (let alone the weeds)?

At the University of Leicester, we have a task for undergraduates, conducted towards the end of their second year, in which they produce a poster describing a particular research method (selected from a short list relevant to their chosen discipline). As part of the exercise, the students need to choose a primary research article which illustrates one application of that method.

It is fair to say that many of the students initially struggle to select an appropriate paper*. There are several reoccurring  problems:

  • Failure to distinguish between a research article and a review
  • Failure to recognise that all journals are not equal in terms of their academic quality and rigour of the work they publish
  • Selection of papers that do not really utilise the technique that should be the focus of their poster.

In truth, the ability to select the right kind of paper is one of the important learning outcomes from this exercise; these students will commence their final year dissertations immediately after they return from summer vacation and need to avoid wasting hours reading papers that are not worthy of their attention. However, since I frequently find myself making the same points in email correspondence with individual students, I felt it was worth using this forum to share some of my overarching reflections on the fine art of finding appropriate research articles.

Research Article or Review?

Most searches these days are conducted online

When we’ve been involved in academia for many years, knowing whether a paper is a primary research paper or a review comes as second nature. This is not necessarily true for inexperienced students. In their defence, the variation of the naming of research articles in different journals does not help. Cell and EMBO Journal call them “Articles”. Nature also has “Articles” but the majority of original research is labelled as “Letters” and in Science primary literature is mostly “Reports” .

Although it ought to be possible to spot a research article by the sub-sections it contains (i.e. Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, etc…) these are not necessarily given the same names in all journals, and the order in which they included can be different. Of course, if the journal has the word “Review”, “Trends in…” or “Current opinions in…” then it is likely to include, almost exclusively, articles summarising the research of other scientists rather than containing original reports of new experiments . But in other journals a review might actually be called “Perspectives”, “Commentary” or “News and Views” to name but three.

Review articles as a mean to an end

For the specific activity we set our students (finding a primary research paper that demonstrates the use of a particular technique), reviews are not going to be a suitable destination. This does not mean, however, that review articles are of no merit in the search for good quality experimental data. In some senses, the authors of a review article have done crucial legwork for you. Already experts in the field, they have read broadly about the topic and will then have selected what they consider to be the most significant recent experiments for their reflections. Looking at the reference list in a review can therefore be an efficient way to shine a light on the best primary literature.

Is it a good paper?

If you are not familiar with a research technique or particular discipline, how can you know whether a paper is a “good” paper? There are three useful clues. The first is the one we have just described, namely do authors of reviews rate the work as worthy of their attention?

Secondly, where has it been published? Like it or not, there is a hierarchy of journals; some titles are in the Premier League, some are in the Championship, and some are non-league. Experienced heads know that research published in Nature, Science, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and EMBO Journal is considered (usually with some justification) to be more worthy than papers coming out in the Journal of Knitting and Spectroscopy, but recognising this is, once again, an aspect of the maturing of undergraduates into fully-fledged scientists.

Thirdly, how many times has the work been cited by other researchers? If work has been in circulation for fifteen years but has only been quoted twice during that period, and both times by the author of the original paper, then it is fair to conclude that it did not contain ground-breaking discoveries. One of the useful features of Web of Knowledge is the citation count. If you don’t have access to Web of Knowledge, Google Scholar has a similar (though slightly less rigorous) feature.

Finally, if you want to refine a search so that it is restricted to only those “Premier league” journals name above,  then why not go to a journal’s own search engine rather than, or in addition to, a more generic search tool? (e.g. for Nature, for Science).

* Note, if you are wondering how this squares with my recent description of a  source evaluation exercise for first years, I need to point out that this is NOT the same cohort.

But is it any good? An information literacy tutorial

At the Higher Education Academy STEM conference in April 2012, I presented a poster offering an outline into a blended-learning tutorial we have produced in order to help undergraduates develop their abilities to evaluate the academic merit of different resources they might find on the internet. The tutorial involves the students working individually to critique eight specially chosen online sources presented as the results of a search on the topic of “mitochondria”. This is followed up by a group tutorial in which the quality and relevance of the materials are discussed more fully.

To see a pdf version of the poster, click on this image

CiteULike = SiteILike

delicious1I have been a devotee of social bookmarking tool delicious since 2007 and now have nearly 4000 items tagged. Although the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos (slide 17) in my July 2008 presentation Knowing where it’s at: find it? flag it? share it? (or how delicious saved my life) were staged for effect, the ability to accumulate links to resources online rather than generate piles on (unread) papers in my office has been a genuine revelation.

connoteaAlongside delicious, I also dabbled briefly with Connotea, the online reference management tool from the Nature stable. It has the same potential as delicious for user-generated tags, but at the time I couldn’t really see what additional value it was adding and I let my interest wither, electing instead to use delicious alone for all of my bookmarks, including journal articles.

citeulikeMore recently, I’ve been persuaded by a colleague to take a close look at rival social citation application citeulike. This time around I think I get it. One of the features that really appeals is the potential to import comprehensive bibliographic information armed only with the Digital Object Identifier (DOI). With journals making the DOI of articles increasingly obvious on their websites and in table of contents alerts, this becomes a very straightforward way to collate large quantities of metadata whilst retaining the capability to tag a paper with whatever keywords reflect its relevance to you.

In truth, I have not conducted a rigorous side-by-side comparison of citeulike v connotea (or any of the other similar tools). I am quite sure, for example, that they all have the potential to assimilate bibliographic details armed only with the DOI. For the foreseable future I will continue to tag journal articles using delicious. However, this feature of citeulike, couple with the capabililty to establish shared libraries of articles relevant to members of a particular list, has persuaded me to also give the latter a prolonged trial.

Helping students improve their referencing practice

Appropriate citation of source documents is a key element in all academic writing. As anyone involved in the teaching of undergraduates will know, however, suitable ways of organising reference lists, and conventions for highlighting within the new text the points at which the sources have been used, are not always intuitive.

Colleagues and students may therefore be interested in an online tutorial about referencing that has recently been launched at the University of Leicester.

The student reference guide is the latest online tutorial produced at Leicester

The student reference guide is the latest online tutorial produced at Leicester

Continue reading