Reference accuracy

An important part of academic writing is exactness and correctness. Correct referencing is vital for reasons of clarity as well as for reasons of academic integrity. Misrepresentation of identifying features, such as the journal title, volume or page number of an article, will obviously make the source difficult to find for readers, whereas incorrect in-text citations may lead to actual misrepresentation of the source text.

The problem of incorrect referencing

Although many journals and publishing houses have well-established methods of checking references before texts are published, the issue of incorrect referencing is recognised as a problem in scholarly publication.

Whether instances of inaccurate references depend on writers' lack of knowledge of reference technique, or if the demands placed on scholars to publish lead to carelessness, a text with faulty referencing risks spreading erroneous facts and misrepresenting previous research. 

The famous case of Dr O. Uplavici

An often cited example of faulty referencing concerns "Dr O. Uplavici" from the late nineteenth century. Below is a quote from an article on citation errors that relates this unfortunate inaccuracy, which may serve as an illustration of the danger of bad referencing technique.

In 1887 a medical authority named Jaroslav Hlava published an important paper on the role of amoebas in dysentery. The paper, written in Czech and titled "O Uplavici" ("On dysentery"), was later abstracted in the German journal Centralblatt für Bacteriologie und Parasitenkunde. Unfortunately, the journal omitted Hlava's name and entered the item under its Czech title. Subsequently, this mistake was repeated and compounded in various ways until 1910, when the paper appeared in the Index-Catalogue of Medical and Veterinary Zoology. The "author," O. Uplavici, was listed with a doctorate. The paper continued to be miscited until the error was discovered in 1938.  

Source: Garfield, E. (1990). Journal Editors Awaken to the Impact of Citation Errors. How We Control Them at ISI. Essays of an Information Scientist: Journalology, KeyWords Plus, and other Essays, 13:367-375.

 

There have been numerous articles and comments on "Dr O Uplavici", attesting to this case of reference inaccuracy. Read the interesting full story about "Dr O Uplavici" in
In an article in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Henige (2006), a long-time editor of a history journal, discusses the problem of bibliographic errors in scholarly writing:
  • Henige, D. P. (2006) Discouraging verification: Citation practices across the disciplines. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 37, 33-52. [Access article via LUB Search]

Aim for referencing accuracy

Writers should strive for what Pecorari (2008) terms "transparent source use" (p. 59). By this she means that the reader should be able to see in what manner sources have been used by the writer. Pecorari lists three aspects that writers need to bear in mind:

  1.  identity of the source: does the reader understand which sources materially influenced the new text?
  2. content: does the reader receive an accurate impression of what the source text said?
  3. language: does the reader understand whether the language comes from the source (i.e. whether the writer has used quotation or paraphrase)?

Source: Pecorari, D. (2008). Academic writing and plagiarism: A linguistic analysis. London: Continuum.

How do I use second-hand information?

Be careful when using second-hand information; as a writer you should preferably refer only to sources that you have actually read yourself. If you need to refer to a fact or statement referred to by someone else, you must account for the original source, as well as for the source where you found a reference to it. Reference styles vary somewhat in the way second-hand sources are accounted for. You will often find information about that under sections on indirect citation or indirect referencing.

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