Saturday, January 24, 2009

Citing references outside academia/government?

Here's another question on writing done by geoscientists outside academia. How do you give credit for work done by others?

In academia (and anywhere else where research is done, including government and industry), citing references is necessary both to put work in context and for ethical reasons. And in classes, it's a huge deal. But the typical citation styles used by geoscientists (whether the USGS style, AGU, or other journal styles) can be pretty distracting - you're reading a perfectly clear sentence, and then it's broken by an entire line of parenthetical references:

(Hatch, 1987; Hatch, 1988; Moench et al., 1995; Rankin, 1996)

My students frequently complain about this reference style - the names don't mean anything to them. So I wonder about other audiences, especially in industries where your audience wants to get to the point, as quickly and clearly as possible.

There are plenty of cases beyond academia (and government or industry research) in which a geologist is likely to rely on work done by someone else. New field work is expensive (and drilling holes even more so); if you can use existing maps, published geochemistry or structure or stratigraphy, I imagine that a good mining or petroleum geologist could identify likely targets. There might be useful information in USGS maps, state survey data, dissertations... all sorts of places besides proprietary data. And if demand for a commodity makes new types of plays profitable (such as is going on now with shale gas or coal-bed methane), then I imagine that all sorts of old studies could become valuable (such as dissertations on joints in the Marcellus Shale, or old proprietary data about areas that weren't economic a couple decades ago). So, if you're working in exploration, and you're writing an internal report about an area that deserves further exploration, how do you cite the old studies? (Do you write an executive summary that management can skim, and give references in documents aimed at other geologists?)

(If you haven't guessed, I'm still thinking about justifying the academic writing my class is doing. I've become more and more aware that I'm not training academics, for the most part, and my own experience just isn't adequate.)

17 comments:

Ron Schott said...

As an academic myself I know I'm not the sort of person to whom your query was directed, and though it may be a bit glib, what about hyperlinks in web documents as a method of citation? They are less visually disruptive to the flow of the text and can point to a wide variety of reference materials (text, images, video, etc.). I grant you that the web (hypertext) may not currently be the preferred delivery method for many of the professional publications you mean to train your students to produce, but it was designed for just this purpose and is increasingly a medium that many professionals are comfortable consuming and creating.

Kim said...

Sure, hyperlinks do a great job of avoiding disruption to the flow of reading, while providing the reference. But they only work in an online world (in which both the references and the written work are entirely online, and readily available - no paywalls). I don't want to teach students to rely on them - at least not now, when so much information is not available online.

Jude said...

Since I'm a librarian, perhaps I don't understand what you're getting at. When I teach citation (which I do nearly every day at my online job), I teach that there are two reasons for using it. One is to give credit; the second is so that someone else can find the same information. In what possible way are the names meaningless? Don't they refer to a Works Cited or Bibliography page, where you can find out who did the work? If you don't give credit for work that you built upon and didn't create, you turn your own work into something that's meaningless. I'm not sure why that doesn't work in industry just as it does in academia.

Ron Schott said...

I'm going to push back a little about the hyperlinks, Kim. In an ideal world they would point directly to the source in a freely available online format, but just because all sources aren't available in this format doesn't diminish the utility of hyperlinks as a citation mechanism. One simple way to use them would be to hyperlink within the document that your students are producing to a traditional text citation in the references section at the end of the document. Yes, this still requires the document your students are producing to be produced, delivered, and consumed in an electronic format (not necessarily online), but unless you're teaching your students to prepare these papers with a typewriter (or a more primitive writing implement) that needn't be a significant hurdle. I grant you that this is not a method that is widely used at this point, but there's little reason from a technical standpoint why it should not be.

A Life Long Scholar said...

I too am not able to answer the question you are asking. However, perhaps I have some insight which might help reconcile your students to the parenthetical citation format.
My partner just completed his history degree, and it fell upon me to edit his honour's thesis. In history (at least at out university) citations are done in the form of footnotes at the bottom of the page. In addition, comments the author wishes to make in addition to what is in the main paragraph go into footnotes. I find this format disrupts the flow of reading *far* more than the parenthetical version--it can be difficult to skip to the footnote quickly and then harder re-find your place in the paragraph after reading it. However, one needs to look at each and every footnote to see if it is a comment or a citation.
Does your school provide EndNote or similar program for doing the citations to all students? Ours does, and I am quite happy with it. Perhaps you could give the student the choice of if they prefer foot notes, end notes, or parenthetical notations--such programs easily switch between one and the others. Just make it clear which format is most common in the sciences.

Eddie Willers said...

If you really want your students to effectively communicate outside academia and inside the corporation, then show them how to put together an effective power point presentation of no more than 20 slides. After that the audience is lost. Never read the slide and be certain the graphics are simple and to the point. For the written report I prefer footnotes at the bottom of the page rather than endnotes or parentheticals. Hyperlinks are OK in the electronic world but useless without a computer. There are still many who don't use a computer. Plagarism has been around for years and most corporations (mine included) have very strict policies pertaining to copyrights and infringement.

Michael Welland said...

While I have been working for myself as a consultant for some time, I have spent much of my life as an oil and gas exploration geologist. I am also of that certain age from which I view writing clearly, objectively and convincingly as a universally necessary skill - as some of the folk who have worked for me will probably complain.

Any exploration geologist worth their salt, whether in oil and gas or mining, HAS to use all resources available - and academic literature resources are vital. I'm based in London, and the incredible resources of the Geological Society library are critical for whatever project I'm working on. And, in any report, those sources have to be correctly cited. What I have always done, and encouraged, is, if necessary, preparing different documents, one a "high level" summary and recommendations, another with all the technical detail and the sources properly cited. But even the summary has to refer to sources and the work of others - it lends credibility, after all.

Academic writing and industry writing may differ in style and structure, reflecting different purposes, but it's all technical writing and using and recognizing the work of others is a fundamental principle regardless of the context.

Happy to comment in more detail if it would be helpful.

Mel said...

I would cater the reference style to the audience. If reading the list of authors (x, Y, and Z) in the middle of the paragraph might be too distracting for some audiences I would use endnotes or footnotes. That way the references are there, but not distracting to the reader (unless they WANT to be distracted, then they have the ability to find the exact reference).

But, if people really want the meat, to know where all the information is coming from, I would stick with the typical citation style.

When I write lab activities for a grade school audience, I try to keep the references out of the way of reading the text by placing references at the base of images or graphs. But, when writing activities for geology majors, I use the typical citation style.

I agree with everyone else that learning to write clearly and consicely is more important than what reference style they use. With Endnotes and other programs, the reference format changes can be done with the click of a button. And Ron's mention of hyperlinks can still be incorporated into the endnotes/footnotes if using PDF/HTML formats. Learning how to write well is more critical.

Maria said...

We used author/date citations when I was in industry. I can't remember how many references went in to the executive summary, but IIRC it was not many, if any. And I don't think you really need them, in a summary - the implied reference there is really to the full version of the report. We never published summary versions separately, so in theory it would always be possible to read in detail about the reasoning and sources we used to reach our conclusions.

We often cited textbooks for things that would be considered common knowledge, or dealt with by a reference to the "classic" paper from many decades ago, in academic writing. There is a cover-your-ass angle to some citation practices in consulting, especially if you are doing expert witness work for legal cases: In addition to documenting the source of your ideas, you want to show the judge and jury that you have used methods that are commonly accepted in your field.

Ron: I will advocate hyperlinked referencing just as soon as they have screens that are as durable, easy on the eyes, and easy to take on a plane, as paper. Things like the Kindle are promising but not quite there yet IMO.

squawky said...

Wow - thanks for the post, btw (I'm teaching a research methods class this term, and this is a good wake-up call...)

First, I know the parenthetical method of citation is distracting, but it's more useful than the list of "sources used" at the end: if you prefer to remove the in-text citations, perhaps organizing the references into sub-categories is appropriate.

What about using numbered references (e.g. 1-3, 5), as a Science article or abstract might? Do the students find these less distracting?

I checked the AIPG "Organization and Content of a Typical Geological Report", and it's not helpful in this case. (And not available online to link to, unfortunately).

As for hyperlinks to references, they're fantastic for reports to be read immediately, but they lose their usefulness over time - sites move, or are re-organized, and the link is suddenly unavailable. Links to some sources (such as journal subscriptions or private documents) may not work outside the company subdomain. There has to be an easy way for the reader to also find the citation info if they can't get to the document itself (perhaps the text link points to the reference, which then links to the electronic document if available)?

Again, though, thanks for sharing the thoughts - the most important thing, I think, is that the reader be able to find the previous work easily... giving credit to those authors is important, but not terribly useful if the reader cannot find the cited work.

Silver Fox said...

I think it's still pretty common to use the USGS style of citation in the mining industry, including parenthetical references.

It is still rare for everything to be completely online, including in internal documents and on company servers. I favor using the standard hard-copy style of citing things, and do so in reports I generate.

Executive summaries, which for a large report can include Summary, Conclusions, and Recommendations, don't usually have any citations, unless they maybe link somewhere else in the document. Large reports like project reports will have the summaries in the front, followed by the entire report. The rest of the report will have the citations (Hatch, 1987; x; y; z) with full references listed in the back.

A company server might sometimes have large amounts of scanned data inlcuding old company reports and other non-published or otherwise unavailable material, which theoretically could be hyperlinked to in a report. One problem is that the report, even as an attachment and not a hard copy, will be going to other offices, sometimes outside the country, and people at those other offices might not be able to connect to the server that has the information. Also, folders on servers have a mysterious way of disappearing sometimes!

I recommend that students, for now, learn the old style, because it is still in use. I kind of like the parenthetical way because it's obvious when someone is citing something, unlike with footnote symbols. I personally don't know about using EndNotes or other software programs. These are probably beyond useful, but I haven't seen them used for internal industry reports.

Kim said...

Jude - the students are pretty new to journal articles, so they're trying to get the gist of the arguments despite not fully understanding all the jargon (and in some cases the theory or the math). Yes, they can go to the References Cited section to get more information, and when they get better at parsing the sentences, the references will be useful. But initially, the references are just more information overload.

Eddie - the students will spend a lot of time learning how to give a clear Powerpoint presentation during their senior seminar (and get a lot of practice in other classes, as well). So I focus on written communication.

And for everyone who emphasized that writing clearly and concisely is more important than citing references correctly: oh, yes. (That would be why I spend one class session out of 42 talking about it - and why about half the time will be spent figuring out what all the different pieces of information in Georef mean, so the students will be able to find and read the sources they need.)

And as for hyperlinks go - I'll mention them as one way to connect to a source, but I'm not to push it until I hear that it's become the preferred way of citing courses. (Some of my students prefer to turn in paper rather than electronic work - high-speed internet access isn't universal in rural areas, especially on reservations, and many of my students are still getting comfortable with a wired world.)

Elli said...

I personally like the parenthetical citations instead of the AGU or endnote style--less flipping back and forth. I've asked my students in Report Writing to use the Geology format for all of their writing, since I felt it was a fairly basic system, but they're still working on it.

I actually hadn't thought of what people in industry do, probably because I've only dealt with academic and government publications. Thanks for bringing this up, Kim!

BrianR said...

I can't add too much more than already has in this thread ... on one side I would say that if the students think the parenthetical referencing is distracting ... then, too bad!

But, if I'm being a bit more accommodating, then perhaps the numbered style like Science or Nature (as someone else mentioned above) is less distracting.

But, bottom line is that referencing must be there and considered an integral part of this kind of writing/reporting.

Anonymous said...

I think telling them to suck it up and learn the house style is a useful experience -- they'll have to do it no matter whether they end up lawyers, doctors, engineers, or restaurant managers. It's a skill worth learning and practicing in a venue where the penalties for screwing up are big enough to be an incentive to learn how to do it right while being small enough that there is no real harm to anyone (like getting fired for getting their employer sued).

As for citations, being useful is probably the most important part. I prefer AGU format over a lot of others I've seen. Unlike many other important journals (like, say, Phys Rev Letters), the paper names are included in the bibliography. A paper name is just so much more useful when figuring out which papers might be useful, or whether it's clearly irrelevant to what you need, etc.

Fault Rocks said...

when we all use xml, hyperlinks will work in all the documents.

Laurel said...

I worked in oil and gas exploration for about 15 years. Our reports to management were oral presentations illustrated with original photos, data, maps and charts displayed with PowerPoint, slides, computer monitors or simply hung on the walls. Maps or charts developed by others and used for historical or background purposes, or maps or charts slightly modified from others were cited parenthetically with (modified from Hayes, et al., 1986) or (modified from Blogitt, 1987,Big Oil Internal Report)right on the slide, map or chart presented.

There was rarely time to do full formal written report on any of our projects. If a report was required by a partner or a foreign government as part of the contract for say, drilling a lease, that report contained standard parenthetical references in the body of the report. Often such reports consisted of facts only, without interpretation. Interpretations were considered proprietary by most companys.

When I was doing graduate level research and industry research, I always liked the parenthetical author/date citations, because, as I became familiar with the papers in my subject area, I developed personal biases regarding which author's opinions I respected and which author's opinions I mentally discounted.