In writing research papers and their evaluation, references or citations play a central role. Knowing the role(s) in detail will help you to cite accurately and responsibly.

Know the definition of referencing here:

What is referencing in academic writing? – a different perspective.

Commonly understood roles of references

According to several top search results, when “role of references in research” is searched in Google, referencing have the following important roles:

  • Referencing allows you to acknowledge or give credit to the writers and researchers from whom you have borrowed words and ideas, thereby avoiding plagiarism.
  • Referencing is a way to provide evidence to support the assertions and claims in your own assignments.
  • References allow readers to trace the sources of information you have used.

Subtle but critical roles of referencing

However, these commonly understood roles don’t clearly reflect the deeper impact (as listed below) references make on the research paper itself and science overall.

References (summarised from here):

  • demonstrate the foundation of the study.
  • support the novelty and value of the study.
  • link one study to others creating a web of knowledge that carries meaning.
  • allows researchers to identify work as relevant in general and relevant to them.
  • create values that are internal to science (e.g., relevance, credit).
  • create values that are external to science (e.g., provide avenues to determine accountability and researchers or funding performance).

A wrong perception of referencing

According to many search results, the most common role of referencing is to acknowledge or give credit to other researchers. This creates a wrong perception among authors that they need to cite references neutrally without constructive scientific evaluation (praise or criticism). No wonder an editorial published in Nature genetics reported that neutral, flavourless or unexamined citations frequently occur in research articles and supporting or contradictory publications are rarely cited. This is an increasing problem for the integrity of scientific communication.

This situation can be improved by acknowledging that referencing is not a neutral act but a political act (without bad politics). In fact, acknowledging the political nature of referencing is a vital rule for responsible referencing. For more on responsible referencing, see here.

But why referencing is a political act?

By assessing many research articles, you select the articles you want to cite and discard others. To pose the research questions and support the claims and novelty of your research work, rather than neutral representations of the references, you accurately represent, inflate, or deflate the contributions of other researchers’ works. See the following examples.

Example 1: Using references to establish the research question.

Many of us have encountered instances where the support of an assertion by the cited reference proves to be ambiguous, non-existent, or even contradictory (often we only notice this when our own work has been mis-cited!). A related practice is the citing of “empty” references (Harzing 2002), also known as “lazy author syndrome” (Gavras 2002), where the citation actually attributes a finding or an opinion to a secondary source such as a review paper, editorial, etc. But how pervasive is citation malpractice and how can it be controlled?

SOURCE: Tood, Yeo, Li, and Ladle, Oikos 116, 1599 (2007)

Example 2: Using references to support claim and novelty of the research paper.

We found that the original assertion was “clearly supported” by the citation in 76.1% of the cases; the support was “ambiguous” in 11.1% of the cases; and the citation did “not support” the original statement in 7.2% of the cases. The remaining 5.6% of the cases were classified as “empty”. How do these mis-citation rates compare with other disciplines? A number of biomedical studies have used an approach similar to our own, although they applied the analogous categories “major error” and “minor error” rather than “no support” and “ambiguous”. Combined error rates found by Fenton et al. 2000 (17%) and Lukic et al. 2004 (19%) are comparable to our result of 18.3% for “no support” plus “ambiguous”, though other results for medical journals range from 12.3% (Gosling et al. 2004) to 35.2% (Goldberg et al. 1993). To our knowledge, empty citation data are absent for all the sciences.

SOURCE: Tood, Yeo, Li, and Ladle, Oikos 116, 1599 (2007)


Appreciation of the broader roles of referencing and its political nature will enable researchers and scientists to produce research works by making citations accurately.

Does your reference manager support you in demonstrating how accurately you represented other researchers’ contributions in your research work? For the first time, with nXr.iCite you can search quotes/images; make citations based on quotes/images and share all the cited materials with your mentors/reviewers for peer-review. This enables them to validate your research paper with the content of the references side-by-side without leaving the paper.