Research Methods for Information Research

7. Beyond research methods

7.5 Citing earlier research literature

Every self-respecting research report is rounded off with a reading list. There is often an element of ritual dance in generating such lists. Researchers rapidly learn the minimal requirements for meeting examiners’ criteria or for getting their reports published in particular journals (where chances can be improved by reviewing the previous literature in the house style of the journal targeted as well as adhering to the particular citation conventions of that journal, such as alphabetical listing or ‘Harvard convention’ citation based on date of publication). The resulting reading lists range from the vestigial through to the exhaustive and fall into several categories:

  • token references to the recognised authorities on the topic in question. This approach is fairly common in journal articles; my favourite example appeared in a piece on the early work of Dostoevsky, where the author intended to write that “The views of Professor Brown on this topic are worth noting”. Unfortunately, the last word acquired an additional ‘h’ in the course of publication!
  • more or less systematic summaries of relevant earlier research on each aspect of the topic in question, complete with citations, leading up to a presentation of the new project’s approach and findings. This is the accepted approach for most doctoral theses and formal research reports in journals;
  • a variant in which the authors cite all the sources that they have drawn upon directly in their work and then add an ‘additional reading’ section. This section usually serves to defend the authors against accusations of not being aware of other significant research. Unfortunately, such lists too often serve merely to enable the next researchers on the topic to protect their own backs by recycling the same references. Some years ago I tried to obtain the originals of all the publications cited by the main researchers on my research theme (information use in social services) and found that virtually all the citations were incomplete, most were inaccurate, many were garbled, some were downright misleading and a few apparently did not exist. One frequently-cited ‘seminal’ work turned out to be an amalgam of three works by different authors;
  • fully-fledged annotated literature reviews covering all relevant research published within specified parameters (usually of language and theme).