The functions of references

When and why are references given? In this section, the main functions of sources and references in academic writing are explained.

In order to present your ideas and findings, you have to discuss them in comparison or in contrast to previous research.  Depending on what kind of text you are writing and what kind of sources you base your writing on, these sources may have different functions, however. Perhaps you refer to a source as a starting point, for instance, if you wish to challenge previous research. You can also refer to previous research in order to back up your own findings or ideas. Whatever use you make of sources, your reference should always have a clear function and it must be relevant to the argument of your text.

When and why are references given?

References are given whenever a source, which supplies some kind of fact, idea, or evidence, is used. In most academic texts, references have at least one of the following, sometimes overlapping, functions:

To acknowledge previous research in the field  

By referring to previous, relevant, studies, you can present opposing views within the field while giving background information on the topic. In doing this, you also provide a basis for your own argument. This means that in your writing, you need to demonstrate your awareness of previous and related research within the field. In some disciplines, there is a designated part in essays and research papers for previous research, whereas such acknowledgements may be given anywhere in the text in other disciplines.

text example here

Text example

The extract below comes from an article on evolutionary responses to anthropogenic changes to ecosystems. It comes from a journal titled Molecular Ecology. By referring to previous research in the field, the authors provide a factual background to their own discussion:
Humanity already captures and uses more than half of the available fresh water on a global basis (Postel et al. 1996), largely through diversions and impoundments to rivers (Vitousek et al. 1997). Major dams typically remain in place for decades to centuries, producing long-lasting changes to natural ecosystems. These effects are pervasive: approximately 40 000 'large' (> 15 m tall) dams are in place worldwide (ICOLD 1998), and the vast majority of major rivers are impounded (McCully 2001). These impoundments have a particularly dramatic effect on the distribution, abundance, and life histories of migratory aquatic species (Merritt & Wohl 2002).  

(Waples, Zabel, Scheuerell, & Sanderson, 2007, p. 84-85)

Comment: Here, too, an author-date reference style has been used. The sources referred to are placed in chronological order, thereby providing a brief overview of the progress within the research field.

To position new research in relation to previous publications

A central aim of research is to expand knowledge. In order to show what is new, scholarly writers need to position their work in relation to previous research in the field.  This positioning is carried out in different ways, depending on discipline and text type. A common method is to present previous research and then present new facts that either expand the knowledge presented by earlier research, or, indeed, contradict it. In order to show what is new in their essay or article, writers thus need to acknowledge what has previously been published within the field.

To present primary data to support the writer's claim
Depending on discipline, writers use different kinds of primary data to support their claims, and the use they make of such data will differ. A research article within the fields of Medicine or Science will be backed up by clinical or experimental evidence (that is, evidence gathered and analysed for the study that is being reported). Similarly, a literary analysis will be backed up by textual evidence (that is, evidence from the text that is being analysed). As practices vary between disciplines, students are advised to consult their supervisors regarding appropriate ways of presenting primary data.

Danger of over-referencing

It is important to consider the relevance of the references that are being used. In the hope of showing everything that the writer has read, a common beginner's mistake is to insert too many and, thereby, irrelevant references. A common kind of over-referencing occurs when references are given to facts that can be seen as common knowledge; if readers to whom the text is directed can be expected to know a general fact that is being stated in the text, no reference is needed. Consequently, writers need to be aware of the audience for which they are writing. Note that over-referencing does not strengthen the writer's argument but may have the opposite effect!

    Videos on related topics

    In the videos below, you will find information on why to use sources and how references can help you build your argument.

    Instructional videos from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

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