Referencing Issues in Everyday Life

By Tim Gorichanaz, PhD Student, Information Studies, Drexel University
Prepared for Info520, Fall 2015

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.
—John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, 1159


Tangent Alert

If you’re interested in considering further the question of where ideas come from, don’t miss the Ted Talk playlist Where Do Ideas Come From?

If you’d like to more about the philosophical problem of novelty, check out Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North.

Where do new ideas come from? This is a question that has occupied philosophers for millennia. The jury is still out, but one part of the puzzle seems to be recombination. That is, taking things that already exist and combining them to make something new. Even if it’s not the ultimate explanation for novelty, recombination is an important component.

Consider the Choco Taco, for example. Where did they get the idea of making ice cream in the shape of a taco? We don’t know for sure, but we can certainly say that the existence of tacos and the existence of ice cream were important first steps along the way.

Image from Wikipedia

Referencing in Everyday Life

In life we’re constantly getting information, and we can’t help but recombine it in new ways. Sometimes we don’t even know it. Accidental plagiarism is a recurring issue in songwriting, for example, which has come up in any number of court cases. This is importantly different from the practice of sampling, in which artists use pieces of other artists’ songs to create new songs; in sampling, artists typically pay royalties to whoever owns the original piece.

Think About...
Say you’re a musician and you release a song, from which you make some money. A year later, you realize you accidentally plagiarized a song you listened to a lot as a teenager. What should you do?

Would it be different if you hadn’t made any money? What if the owner of the plagiarized material found out before you did? How would the situation be different if the plagiarized material was instead, say, a well-known nursery rhyme?

Since recombination is so common, it’s important to note that different situations require different ways of acknowledging the original source. We usually think of “referencing” as something that we do in academic papers only, but I hope you’re starting to see that it comes up in everyday life, too.

Tangent Alert:
The Couple Who Died
from Confusion

If you have four minutes to spare, check out this clip from the IFC comedy Portlandia (season 4, episode 1). (It’s somewhat weird, but you’ll see the relevance before long.)

“Sitting kills. … It takes years off your life. We read it in the New York Times. Standing’s bad for you too. We heard it on NPR,” say the couple who died of confusion. Is it possible that part of this confusion arose from irresponsible referencing?

In everyday conversation, we tend to be pretty sloppy when it comes to referencing. We often say things like, “They say that…” or “I heard….” Other times we might be a little more specific: “I heard on a podcast...” or “I read this article…” Even though we don’t explicitly identify our sources at these times, the “citations” perform an important function: They identify which thoughts and ideas we come up with ourselves, and which we get from elsewhere. (If you like, these types of “citations” can be thought of as akin to the “in-text citations” of writing, since they occur in the stream of speech.) Sometimes, if our interlocutor is really interested, or if the topic is otherwise important, we might have to clearly cite where we got our information from: “I heard on a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast about cyber crime…” or “I read this article in the New York Times that said…."

Think About...
In our online lives, we do a lot of recombination. How do the social, ethical and legal issues surrounding references come into play in the following situations? (1) Retweeting something on Twitter; (2) Using someone else’s photo of you as your new profile picture on Facebook; (3) Pinning something on Pinterest; (4) Using an app to repost someone’s Instagram photo through your own account; (5) Writing a blog post and linking to other articles.

When Referencing Really Matters

When does referencing sources become more important? A number of situations come to mind:

In these situations, referencing does a few things:

As we discussed, different situations require different attention to referencing. As an information professional, it’s important to consider what sort and degree of referencing is appropriate in any given situation. It’s also important to remember that, in some contexts, clear referencing is non-negotiable.

Think About...
What would it be like if we always gave complete references in everyday conversation every time we mentioned information from somewhere else?

For example, instead of saying, “My physical therapist told me…,” we’d say, “My physical therapist told me in a personal communication on September 17, 2015, during my 9 a.m. appointment that she read in her textbook Human Physiology: An Integrated Approach, 6th edition, written by Silverthorn and published by Benjamin Cummings in 2012, that…” In what ways would we be better off? In what ways would we be worse off? Try to consider the social, ethical and legal components.

Referencing in the Academic World

Academia is one example where referencing is requisite. That’s because academia runs on documentation. Written accounts of research are the record of academic thinking, and those accounts are attributable to people. Because academics work in communities, referencing is essential for the community to make progress. It provides a way to trace how any given idea developed. Moreover, citing sources positions a researcher within the academic community—it shows how their work relates to what’s already been done. If you want to learn more about the role of referencing in academia, I recommend reading the Journal of Documentation paper “What Do Citation Counts Measure? A Review of Studies on Citing Behavior.” As the article shows, academics cite things for a wide range of reasons, both scientific and non-scientific (non-scientific reasons include publicizing one’s previous research and supporting peers).

Because of the importance of referencing in academia, the academic community has established norms of what should be cited and how it’s done. In short, anything should be cited if it is not already common knowledge. Things are common knowledge if they’re no longer up for debate.

Citations in academia are typically done by offering short version within the text itself (in-text citations), with the full version at the end of the paper (bibliographic citations, endnotes, or a reference list). The difference between the two is equivalent to what we discussed above in everyday conversations—how we might say that we read something in “an article” and then, later in the conversation, give the title, author and/or place of publication of the article so that others can read it for themselves. We cite things this way because it allows us to keep our works readable while still citing our sources. To illustrate my point, consider the following text:

Participants in these studies confirmed that ultrarunning has its own particular culture (Holt et al., 2014) and elaborated that ultrarunning “separates you from the rest of the world” (Simpson et al., 2014, p. 179), stressing the group-defining social ties within the ultrarunning world. These findings echo the qualities of community and culture that identify ultrarunning as a serious leisure pursuit, discussed above (Hartel, 2005).

This is a snippet from a paper I recently wrote. The parts in parentheses show where I’m using other people’s information. If a reader wants to check out the works I’m referencing, they can go to the end of my paper and look up the complete information on each reference. But let’s imagine we always had to put the complete information every time we referenced a source. The paragraph above would look like this:

Participants in these studies confirmed that ultrarunning has its own particular culture [Holt, N. L., Lee, H., Kim, Y., & Klein, K. (2014). Exploring experiences of running an ultramarathon. Sport Psychologist, 28(1), 22–35] and elaborated that ultrarunning “separates you from the rest of the world” [Simpson, D., Post, P.G., Young, G., & Jensen, P.R. (2014). “It’s not about taking the easy road”: the experiences of ultramarathon runners. Sport Psychologist, 28(2), 179], stressing the group-defining social ties within the ultrarunning world. These findings echo the qualities of community and culture that identify ultrarunning as a serious leisure pursuit, discussed above [Hartel, J. (2005). Serious leisure. In K.E. Fisher, S. Erdelez, & L. McKechnie (Eds.), Theories of information behavior: a researcher’s guide (pp. 313-317). Medford, NJ: Information Today].

Now the paragraph is a lot more difficult to read. I’m the one who wrote it, and now I can’t even get halfway through without getting confused. So that’s why in-text citations and end-of-the-paper reference lists are separate. And we should all be grateful for that! If you want to learn more about the specifics of different citation systems in academia, check out my Citation Systems lecture.


In this lecture, we’ve considered referencing sources in a variety of everyday life situations. As you can see, it’s much broader than just something we do in school. (Even though it’s been most concretely systematized in academia.) Referencing involves a number of social, legal and ethical issues… and it’s rarely cut and dry. This means it’s not about memorizing a set of rules, but understanding principles that will guide you—and those who you work with, as an information professional—as you practice recombination in your life.

Think About...
How have I been citing sources throughout this lecture?

Questions? Comments?

If they’re class-related, reach out to Dr. Turner. If they have to do with the content of this lecture, reach out to me. I’m happy to chat!

About the Author

I’m a PhD student in CCI, working with Dr. Deborah Turner. My research looks at the relationship between information and form. One project I’m currently working on is exploring how, why and when Wikipedia editors cite sources—and how it differs from typical citation behavior in academia. You can learn more about me and my work at my website, and you can email me at [email protected].