References or citations play a central role in the writing of research papers, but how well is the role defined?

Know the definition of referencing here:

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

Commonly understood roles of references

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

Referencing allows you to acknowledge the contribution of others writers and researchers in your work.

It gives credit to the writers from whom you have borrowed words and ideas.

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.


Broader roles of referencing

However, these roles don’t represent whole impact (as illustrated below) references make on the research paper itself and science overall.

References (summarised from here):

  • demonstrate the foundation of the study.
  • support the novelty, value, and visibility 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 avenue to determine accountability and performance).

A crucial aspect of referencing

The snippet and other similar resources also miss to mention the most crucial aspect of referencing.  The aspect is the political nature of referencing which heavily influences the roles of referencing.

How is the act of referencing political? In short, you don’t refer to the contributions or research papers of other researchers neutrally. You accurately represent, inflate, or deflate the contributions to pose the research questions and support the claims and novelty of your research work. See the following examples.

Example 1: Representing 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: Representing 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)

In fact, acknowledging the political nature of referencing is a vital rule for responsible referencing. For more on responsible referencing, see here.


Appreciation of the broader roles of referencing and its political nature will enable researchers and scientist to produce research works by making citation 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 notes/images; make citations based on notes/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.