In this post, I am going to go through some of the most common mistakes I have seen in student assignments, theses, papers I receive for peer review, as well as even in published scientific articles, in terms of how literature references are used. Thus, today, we will take a look at how to use references properly in your thesis, whether it is a BSc or a MSc thesis. If you are reading this, I assume chances are you are a psychology major. That is great! However, I think this post might be interesting to you even if you major in something else. For the psychology students: We will not be going to APA details here. This post is not about the citation technicalities but about the academically and ethically sound use of references.
Be Sure Your References Say What You Claim They Say
This might just be the single most common issue in reference use I encounter in student theses. Sometimes it might seem like the student is just throwing within a parentheses a likely name who they think argued a particular thing in their book or article, but when I go and check it up, the original source says nothing of the kind the student claims they do. Either the student has confused who said what or they copied this reference from some other source, who also did not double check their sources.
This mistake tells me that your literature reading, note taking, and archival management strategies need some tweaking. When understanding how to use references properly in your thesis, the first thing is to make sure you have a sound process for staying track on what you read and who said what. Learning how to take effective notes from what you read is one of the most important academic skills. With good notes, you will never need to go back to the original source again, as your notes tell you exactly what is in this source. In addition, you will memorize better who wrote what, and you won’t confuse things and start misattributing claims and research results to wrong sources. Good notetaking will keep you on track of which results, claims, concepts, and theories come from which scholars, and you never make the mistake of not giving glory to whom glory belongs.
Don’t Copy Text!
If you are writing your BSc or MSc thesis, it should be already clear to you that all sorts of plagiarizing and copying is the epitome of uncool in academia. However, it is not entirely uncommon that I notice a student taking a sentence from a paper, changing a couple of words in it, and either presenting it as their own (no reference information provided), or misattributing the reference to an author who for sure did not write the thing in question.
Let me clarify. If you write a sentence that is clear and self-evident in the sense that there is no question of the truth-value of your claim, such as “Climate change is an ever-growing problem for all life on earth”, you don’t necessarily need a reference there. You can add one (for such statements about climate change, IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with its various publications is a safe bet). However, think about a more complicated sentence that in all likelihood is the result of hours or days of reading and thinking work on the part of its author. You cannot just change some words into their synonyms and call the phrase your own. Even changing a couple of words in the sentence and then adding a reference to the paper where you took the sentence is not okay. Why?
Let’s take the following clause: “The idea of agency also implies the agent’s separation from others, their awareness of their own actions, and ability to reflect upon those actions”. It comes from a recent paper of me and my co-author, named “Storytalk and complex constructions of nonhuman agency: An interview-based investigation”. However, even diligently putting Toivonen & Caracciolo, 2022 within brackets after this sentence is not saving you from my critical inquiry. Why? Because the original sentence is not relying upon the reflections of me and Caracciolo, but emerges from our reading of what Rom Harré, Jeffrey Scott Marchand, Rob Pope, and Mutsumi Yamamoto had to say on the topic.
Now you might think that the correct solution is to alter the nice sentence about agency sufficiently enough so that it does not look like you copied it from my paper, add the correct references (Harré, 1993; Marchand, 2018; Pope, 1998; Yamamoto, 2006) after it, and call it a day. Unfortunately, this is not the right solution either. You cannot cite references you haven’t read yourself. I know, it sucks. So many papers and books to read, so little time. However, that’s how research and academia works. You end up reading a lot, and often it even so happens that you read a bunch but end up either using none of what you read in your own work or, alternatively, the fruit of twenty hours of reading becomes one single sentence. Welcome to academia!
I cannot stress enough how important it is not to place such references behind your claims that you have not actually familiarized yourself with. A nasty supervisor might make sure they question you in your colloquium about a reference they think you might not have read yourself. Then you are in trouble, trying to formulate an answer based on having read one single sentence from a second-hand source.
On what basis would I as a supervisor presume you have not read something yourself? Well, perhaps I see you writing something that is very similar to what I have written in my own work, citing a reference I myself have used. Perhaps you are not spending any time on elaborating what it is this author has claimed -you are just placing a name within parentheses after a sentence that smells like copypasted from another paper. Also, quite frankly, if I myself spent months crawling through, let’s say, a philosophical essay collection by the notoriously difficult-to-grasp Donna Haraway, trying to persuade me to believe you read and digested the book in the two weeks you had to write your BSc or MSc thesis deliverable is going to take some work.
In a nutshell: Don’t copypaste sentences. Don’t even first copy them and then alter them in the attempt of masking your copypasting efforts. Give credit to whom credit belongs. Read the original sources, don’t cite from second hand ones.
Now, we are off to the third point in making your reference game bulletproof and making sure you understand how to use references properly in your thesis.
Check What You Cite
I tend to know relatively well the literature my students use when writing their theses. This is because I only supervise theses written about topics that I personally research myself. Sometimes I encounter a new name, thinking happily that a student has found a paper or a book that I haven’t discovered yet. Sometimes this initial joy ends up in supervisory disappointment, as it turns out the student is using a blog post, magazine article, or a MSc thesis as a reference.
Generally speaking, in a scientific product we cite other scientific products, that are either peer-reviewed articles from scientific journals or scientific books. Try to do your best to avoid citing a MSc or a BSc thesis. No matter how good a thesis is, it is not a peer reviewed scientific publication. Only if there is absolutely nothing else available on a topic and the thesis in question is of very high quality, would I personally recommend (or even allow) citing a thesis in a thesis.
When it comes to blog posts or magazine/newspaper articles, you can cite them under certain circumstances. Firstly, you need to make it explicitly clear that the source we are looking at here is not a scientific paper, but an article from “The New Yorker” or a post from a climate scientist’s website, for example. Secondly, you have to use this information in a way that does not presume it is a scientific source. Perhaps you want to argue that lately, there has been a lot of discussion about a certain topic in the media. In that case, citing a couple of magazine or newspaper articles for illustration is very much okay.
Perhaps you want to make the case that people have lately become very active in their personal blogs and websites in discussing certain matters. In that case, please do throw some examples my way for illustration. However, make it explicit that you are citing a blog post. Don’t just hide your blogpost writer’s name within the parentheses, making it look like you are quoting a scientific paper. Why not? If there is no ethical or professional no-no reason coming to your mind right now, at least you should know that I often trace my students’ references and if I find a Master’s thesis or a blog hiding in the reference list, I will take this up for discussion.
How to Use References Properly in Your Thesis: A Summary
Using references properly is not some boring exercise of secondary importance that you just need to suffer through to make a decent thesis. Reference use is about documenting a very important process, that of reading previous literature that is relevant to your thesis and showing which researchers have contributed to this earlier knowledge. You are also helping your reader to understand the state of the art in research about a particular topic.
Keep in mind that your implied reader is not your supervisor, but a fellow student who might be doing their own research on a similar topic. You will make your reader very happy by helping them spot new and interesting research that is important for their own work. That happiness will be very short-lived in case the author you claim wrote something actually wrote nothing like that at all or is not a researcher but a journalist writing an opinionated op-ed. Making sure you know how to use references properly in your thesis is a service you do not only for yourself but also to all those who might be reading your work in years to come!
In case you want to understand more about how the supervisory process works (with me, at least) you can check out this post. To find out more about how to manage your citations and reference list, you can go to this blog post of a fellow professor. When you have your references straight and are ready to give a talk about your study, perhaps these tips on how to make a nice presentation are of interest.
Featured photo by Kaitlyn Baker via Unsplash.