Cite check

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I’ve just finished an online workshop for librarians. Good fun as usual and very worthwhile. The participants made really great strides over the four weeks and they knew it, they had so much new awareness by the end of the month.  it was very encouraging.

Many went beyond the bounds of the workshop readings to find information and opinion elsewhere, the spirit of inquiry was strong.  Many quoted from the articles they found – great!  Quite a few copied graphics and images from articles and other materials found – and most did not need to be reminded to cite the sources of those graphics as well as of the text.

But … perhaps because there were larger numbers of newcomers to librarianship on the course than usual, there seemed to be a rash of participants who would simply cite their images as “Google” or “Google Images” or present the Google image search URL.

That’s not helpful and it’s not right either. I would send a personal message to anyone who either forgot to cite at all or who cited Google. I told them that Google was not responsible for creation of the image, and could they please at least find where Google had found the image and cite that instead; if they could find the creator of the image, all the better.  I also advised them that they could not edit their posts on the workshop site but that I could, and I would add the citation once they had found it.

(When thanking them after they had tracked down a more valid source, I reminded them that we tell our students to cite their images as well as the text that they “borrow,” and we tell them that Google is not a source;  it behoves us to hold to our own requirements, it is good practice to role model this ourselves.)

All responded to my request for citations. One particular correspondent, the inspiration for this blog post, wrote back to thank me for a hard-learned lesson.  She was one of those who had noted “Source: Google.”  It turned out (I think, trying to replicate her search) that the source is not straightforwardly to be found on Google.  She had found the image in an article she’d come across thanks to a Google search, but she could not remember which article, thus the pains-taking search.   She was determined – she wrote that it took her nearly 4 hours to find the source she had used. She will be more careful next time and every time, she said.

I admire her perseverance.   Good research, good academic practice – and a lesson hard-learned!

This is a practical object lesson.  Two pieces of advice I give in my workshops and classes:


The first is practical good sense.  I have come across students who say they don’t want to interrupt their flow of writing by including citations as they write, they’ll add them at the end.  That’s a dangerous practice and can lead to missed citations, incomplete citations or to attribution to the wrong authors.  [See Knowing how to write is not knowing how to write].

If you are writing from notes on which you recorded the source at the time you made the note, you’ll have the needed citation already there as you are using the note.  If as you write, you have to look for further information or need to check on something, you are slowing down anyway – and all the more reason to cite as you write (and note at least enough to enable you to find the source again when it comes making the reference list, better yet note the full bibliographic details at the time).

It saves time in the long run.

That second piece of advice is almost pure APA, If you can’t cite it, don’t use it.  It could have saved my participant 4 hours of searching.  Her chosen image was filler, not essential to her workshop response. Unless she was absolutely determined to use that particular image, she could have given up the search after a few minutes of frustration and gone looking for a different image to use instead.

Instead, having completed the piece and unable to edit it, she had to explore, had to retrace her journey.  Saving time earlier cost her dearly, later.

There’s another thought there too, if you can’t cite it, don’t use it.  It applies to authorship too. If you cite as you write but you cannot find an author, how can you tell how credible that information is?   The author has no reputation or credentials because there is no author.  I include corporate authorship here: if the organisation behind the site is credible, then we might assume more readily that the information on that site is credible – or at least as credible as the organisation itself.   Many organisations and associations have known biases, they support particular causes.  Any information found may need to be considered carefully before it is used.  If you cannot trust the author (single, multiple or corporate), can you trust the information which is presented? Does the author have authority?

We are into deep waters here … but it is as well to know where we stand, where the authors we wish to cite stand, while we are still researching and/or writing.  If we leave it until the work is complete and then have our doubts, we may be spending three or four hours seeking authorship or further support,  or rewriting because we decide we cannot use this after all.

A few extra minutes invested in the research or writing stage can save us hours once the draft is complete.

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