Friday, April 1, 2011

Says who?

I think citations are a greatly underappreciated part of scientific works.  They also, for some of the same reasons, provide a way of assessing the strength of a source even if you don't know the topic that's involved.

My first real introduction to citations as being important was when a history teacher of mine in college was concerned that I'd committed academic dishonesty -- failed to cite a source for something she felt was obscure.  After a nervous couple of minutes for me, we had a nice chat.  What I'd done was to mention, without citation, Newton's prism experiment.  I hadn't cited it because it was something I'd been seeing mentioned for years without citation, so figured counted as 'common knowledge' and not in need of a citation.  My history teacher, on the other hand, had never heard of it before, so was looking for the citation to the person who had discovered the experiment (perhaps a citation to Newton himself; I now have the right book -- Newton's Opticks).

So that's one use of citations -- avoid annoying your teacher.  Somewhat more generally, credit people for the work they do.  That's an important thing in being a scientist, as the people you're giving credit to are your colleagues.  Conversely, your colleagues will be peeved, to put it mildly, if you fail to credit them for their work.

The use at hand, as the title suggests, is to provide the backup for your claims.  You could avoid some of that by providing full descriptions yourself, but then your article becomes impossibly long.  Instead you can write something like "The earth is round[1] and rotates[2].", where you then give the full address to 1 and 2 somewhere later in the document (in print media days) or hyperlink the words directly.  An alternate that I prefer is to provide the direct 'who' and 'when', such as "The earth is round [c.f. e.g. Aristotle, ca. 322 BC*] and rotates [Foucault, 1851]."  In this way the reader immediately sees something about who your source is, and how old it is, and retains some merit even in a hyperlinking medium.

If you could read infinitely fast, it might be doable to simply read everything from everywhere.  But for us humans, some means of trimming the candidates to manageable volumes is needed.  So, for myself at least, if I'm trying to learn about a scientific topic, I head for scientific sources, or as close to the original as I can understand.

The bibliography/citation list is a quick way to figure this out.  Places that are citing wikipedia articles, newspaper editorials, and so forth, for most of what they have to say are not strong sources.  If the topic has scientific merit, there will be scientific papers on it.  If I couldn't read, or would have a hard time finding and reading, the original scientific papers (which is true in most fields), then I want to be learning from someone who could and did.  The strong source is one which is providing me the ability to go in to the literature and start learning about the particular part of the article which caught my attention.

This last is another important purpose of citation: It helps readers learn more.  I would rather be learning the science from an author who is trying to help me learn it.

Now for the mirror test: How do my own postings hold up to that standard?  In this post, it does ok, in the sense that this isn't about the content of science; it's my opinion of some things to consider in looking for sources from which to learn the science.  In the science posts, not always as well as I'd like.  So I'll take this post as a reminder to myself to include more references and links.

In my blogroll, two that are particularly good with their citations are Skeptical Science and RealClimate, though I think almost all are pretty good -- at least better than I.

c.f., I translate to myself as meaning 'See, for example'.  It means that there's more than one source, and this is either the one that I used (though I know there are more), or that for some reason I prefer it.
Update: my self-translation is incorrect, see Nick and Peter's comments.  What I really want is 'e.g.', for exempli gratia  (free example is my translation here, unfortunately, it's my son who is the latinist.)

ca means 'about' (circa).


Nick Barnes said...

Gosh. Possibly my only chance ever to correct a Grumbine. That use of cf isn't correct. See
(oh, the irony) and also , to which Wikipedia refers on this point.
"cf." means "compare", which in your usage would suggest that Aristotle disagreed with you about the shape of the Earth.

Peter said...

I've not come across "c.f." before - what does it stand for?

There's "cf." (standing for "conforma", meaning to compare), but that doesn't seem relevant. When giving an example citation, I'd personally use "e.g." ("exempli gratia")

jg said...

When I read a Nature article, I check the references for anything looking like a free preprint, e.g., on It's a great way to extend my limited access to science journals. I recognize that these preprints aren't final, but they are close enough for my educational needs.


Penguindreams said...

Nick: Hang around, you'll have plenty more chances!

Peter, Nick: Thanks for both corrections. Not sure where I got c.f. in mind instead of cf., much less the usage I was giving it. Also always thought e.g. was more restrictive than you show. So I get to learn more things.

jg: Good addition.

carrot eater said...

We should all cite Newton whenever we can - on every use of F=ma, etc. See if we can get his number of times cited into the billions.

Oale said...

ah, c.f. is not a valid abbreviation. i've used it sometimes & thought it stands for some sort of latin ('compare from' ) translating to 'compare with'.

Anonymous said...

Cf. is probably the most misused Latin abbreviation I come across. As stated, it does mean "compare" (from L. confer, imperative of the L. verb conferre) the particular statement made with that in the source(s) being cited. Until I see cf. listed as "see" in what I regard as the big 3 dictionaries (Oxford Shorter, Merriam-Webster, Collins), then it has only one meaning.

There is an Anglicised version of cf., viz. (tsk, tsk) cp., which is not much used in my experience.

"C.f." is a valid abbreviation, although it is probably more often seen as "c/f". It is used in accounting/bookkeeping and means carr(y)ied forward.

P. Lewis

Penguindreams said...

There's actually something of that effect in reality. Not so much Newton, but people like Einstein are cited much more often, and much farther afield than would be expected merely by their science. I recall an oceanography paper on waves that managed to invoke Richard Feynman and Feynman diagrams. It was a serious reach, but kind of entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Not being a scientist I often do not realize the importance of what I have read. Later when the topic is relevant I remember some of the outline but not the who or where. So my citations are lacking.

However, I do appreciate when others provide links and citations. Will have to try harder.

Tony O'Brien

Robert Grumbine said...

I'm with you in that difficulty. I read a lot, and remember a fair amount of it. But remember little about where/when/by whom. It's an effort to get things tied back to their sources. I've developed some methods over the years to do better with my references.