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References and Citations: Are we doing it right?

In scholarly writing and publishing, a reference provides information necessary for readers to track the original source referred to in that particular article. Regardless of the referencing style, a reference generally consists of the author names, the title of the article, and the journal-title, followed by the year of publication, volume number, issue number and page numbers. In lay terms, the process of directing the readers to the different sources of information supporting an idea, argument or concept, and acknowledging the authors is known as referencing. Simultaneously, a citation is a common and essential practice in scientific writing that offers credit to authors for their unconventional work that another researcher uses.

Role of References and Citations

Citing is a common practice of referring to others’ concepts, thoughts, or ideas, acknowledging others’ work, and supporting an argument. Moreover, citations are used to differentiate one’s work from other authors’ work, and to direct readers to the original source of information. However, regardless of its significance, the citation may be the least noticed aspect of a scientific manuscript. When it comes to science, accuracy plays a vital role in writing. The act of looking up a reference for verification serves as a checkpoint of appropriateness. Thus, referencing serves as a fact-checking tool. However, improper attribution of references might occasionally go unchecked. In the literature, citation errors such as errors in the bibliography and misquotations are often prevalent. Evidence suggests that the prevalence of misquotations in various journals is up to 20%, wherein approximately 70% of the references of published papers have at least one error.

The reference indicates and thereby differentiates whether the information discussed is original or inspired and thus acquired from others’ work. Alongside a vital role in acknowledging a previous work, a reference highlights the new research supporting the authors’ claim. While helping the readers refer back to the original source, a reference also indicates the work’s quality (for instance, a published article in a well-reputed journal and an unpublished opinion piece on an online website). A reference also facilitates the reader to estimate whether the included data is the most recent about the topic. From this background, the author would like to highlight two important issues and their consequences and the possible solutions that are overlooked when quoting a reference and a citation.

Concerns along with their Solutions

The first issue is the perplexity in identifying the exact content (a sentence or a paragraph) in a scientific article to which the reference is directed. Although there exist numerous referencing styles, quoting a reference and a citation remains analogous. Thus, usually, the citation within the text is quoted as a superscript or within the line in the parenthesis, for which further details of the citation will be provided in the reference section. It is often a tedious task to track where precisely that particular citation is referring to in the original source article, especially when the source article is too lengthy such as a protocol or a guideline. Hence, it is a laborious job for a reader to cross-check the original source for which the reference has been cited, and as a result, the majority of research works are left underrated or unrecognized. The possible solution to overcome this problem is to make the reader walk through the original source article identify where exactly the citation is re-directed. This problem could be addressed by adjoining a line or paragraph number (if possible, a page number) within parentheses as an extension to the existing referencing styles.

The second issue is the unvariedness in citation credits for authors whose work has been cited multiple times within the same article. In general, an author cites a reference in his/her work supporting an idea or an argument and thereby provides a proper acknowledgment to a researcher in the form of a citation. Citations play a pivotal role in assessing the worthiness of an article and the author, eventually. However, regardless of the number of times a particular article is cited in work, the researcher receives only one citation. For instance, reference A has been cited multiple times within the same article, whereas reference B has been cited only once in the entire article. Finally, both these references (or authors) get only one citation as a credit, where reference A has been cited multiple times to support the idea within the same article. Albeit quoting the reference multiple times, the existing referencing system cannot differentiate the citations based on the number of times cited, leaving little space in assessing the author’s impact. The possible solution to address this issue is to adjoin this piece of information (i.e., the number of times a particular reference has been cited within the same article) to the existing referencing style, which will help understand the concept of times cited within the same article. 

Times Cited

Times cited is a simple and popular metric for determining an articles’ or authors’ impact and often represented as the Hirsch index (h-index). The h-index has gained its reputation over the years, to an extent where universities consider this information for hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions. Therefore, revising the existing referencing and citation systems so they can track and thereby represent the article’s metrics that are cited multiple times within the same article could influence the author’s impact. All contributors and stakeholders (authors, reviewers, editors, publishers, and readers) of scientific, scholarly articles should upgrade their citing and referencing skills to ensure the original information’s accuracy and completeness. Relevant and thoroughly validated citations add to the reference lists’ quality and allow the readers to judge the work’s novelty and authenticity.

In this rapidly evolving digital age of publishing, citations and references play a vital role in hypothesis generation and sourcing the original work. Citations and references provide a means of acknowledging the previous work, enabling new studies to integrate within the existing literature, and identify primary sources supporting the authors’ statements. Thus, being accurate and transparent while citing and referencing allows readers to follow the flow of ideas that ultimately enhance science communication integrity.


In a nutshell, it is a tedious task to look through the entire original source in locating the exact sentence or a paragraph that the reference directs the reader in an article. Thus, mentioning the line or a paragraph number in the existing referencing system will help the reader find out the referenced article’s information and save readers’ time. Equality in allocating the citation credits of the articles that are cited multiple times within the same publication is another issue, where adding this information (i.e., times cited) as a suffix to a reference helps the authors acquire the citation credits accordingly. 

Image by Florian Pircher from Pixabay  under Pixabay License (CC0).


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About the Author
  • Sai Krishna Gudi

    Dr. Sai Krishna Gudi is a Ph.D. student at the College of Pharmacy, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba, Canada. His research interests include studying medication use and its long-term effects in large populations; comparative effectiveness & medication-safety research; optimizing irrational drug-use & medication appropriateness (over-treatment), particularly among older adults; knowledge translation through evidence-based practice; pharmaceutical policy & health-services research; confounding & bias analysis; and systematic reviews, meta-analysis & network meta-analysis methods. He is also currently working as a junior Epidemiologist at the Manitoba Health, Government of Manitoba, Canada. Follow Dr. Gudi on Twitter @SaiKGudi

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