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The Why and How of Bibliography

Like most professional practice, bibliography can and should be a sensible thing. It shouldn’t be a technicality or hassle, but integral to your work in leading the reader through your scholarly context and sources. This can be made easier with bibliographic tools like EasyBib or Refworks. (EasyBib does cost money; NU's library provides free access to RefWorks.)

Unfortunately, bibliography is often presented to students as a series of technical hurdles without much thought given to the role it performs. Listing one’s sources can perform at least one of the following functions: a citation identifies the subject of a claim, it substantiates a claim, or it identifies an influence or resource. For example, consider the following three sentences:

  1. Lanier (2006) believes Wikipedia is a form of online collectivism.

The reference is the subject of the sentence, that is all.

  1. Because science related articles on Wikipedia are roughly as accurate as Britannica (Giles 2005) Wikipedia should be recommended as a reference work.

Here, I am incorporating an external authoritative claim into the body of a (hypothetical) argument.

  1. The notion of an Internet encyclopedia dates back to 1993 (Wikipedia 2006i; Wilson and Reynard1994 ).

In the third example, I am documenting the influence of Wikipedia (so as not to plagiarize) and providing it as a resource (as it is the best introduction for the reader); but I’m substantiating the claim via an external authority (a primary source).

When you use citations, it is worthwhile to ask “in what capacity am I using this source?”

Also, get a writing and style manual, such as one of Diana Hacker's pocket style manuals. It's a $15 investment that gives you extraordinary leverage on the thousands of dollars you are paying for school.

Using Wikipedia

In other classes, you might be restricted from using reference works, including Wikipedia. Instructors might be concerned that Wikipedia is not authoritative or reliable. You certainly have to respect the policies of other instructors, but I want you to ask in this class: what, then, is authoritative? There are many books and articles as likely, or more so, to contain nonsense as an encyclopedia. Instead of simply excluding a genre of work, we need to be media literate; this is an important skill to develop as a scholar and citizen. Furthermore, I believe to forbid the citation of a reference work contributes to a form of dishonesty posing as pretense. (How does the person who only reads original sources find those sources?) Finally, some worry that web pages can change and be touched by many. Indeed, this is a great opportunity to appreciate that knowledge is a reflection of a society and its time.

Instead of barring citations of reference works I have a simple alternative. Unless provided by an instructor (e.g., as part of the syllabus or other class material) a reference article should never be cited alone. As I often say, a Wikipedia article is only as reliable as its sources, and those sources should be consulted, carefully considered, and cited in preference (or addition) to Wikipedia. Reference to Web resources should include the date of access and the specific version consulted, which Wikipedia articles’ provide via the "permanent link" in the left sidebar.

Works Cited

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature. Retrieved on December 15, 2005 from < http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html >

Lanier, J. (2006). The hazards of the new online collectivism. Edge. Retrieved on June 07, 2006 17:18 UTC from < http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge183.html >

Wikipedia (2006i). Interpedia. Wikimedia. Retrieved on October 20, 2006 17:14 UTC from < http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Interpedia&oldid=73394880 >

Wilson, D. and Reynard, A. M. (1994). Interpedia frequently asked questions and answers. Retrieved on October 27, 2005 from < http://groups.google.de/groups?selm=CL9x0u.B4x%40acsu.buffalo.edu&output=gplain >

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