Referencing our sources of evidence when writing for academic audiences is common practice. Yet, for the average reader of research outside academia, references are often a nuisance. As a research advisor in a development NGO, I am trying to work with a referencing model that simplifies referencing while not making it simplistic.
Referencing and bibliographies can be time-consuming for the busy researcher and reader, take up precious writing space, and shade attractive communication formats. And yet referencing is key to give rigour, history, fairness, and efficacy to our research pieces.
- Quality and transparency – Whether it is what others have written or our own collected data – referencing is a self-check to ensure we are not making up claims or offering an unsupported opinion. Referencing helps our readers trace back, and check on the strength of our claims. We should be proud to let everyone know that we know where the information came from.
- Research memory – Stating the sources of previous work gives solidity and personality to a text. It gives the research piece some history as part of something bigger, building on what is already there.
- Inclusion and acknowledgment –There is a social justice dimension to referencing. For instance, the word ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and originated in the black feminist movement. By omitting that detail we hide that history. Audiences may even think the term is ours – not fair!
- Time management – Referencing makes life easier for others to trace back our arguments, and use them for their own purposes. Referencing supports us in not reinventing the wheel – isn’t it better to clarify how others defined intersectionality and see if it works for us rather than trying to define it from scratch?
We can try out a more optimal, inclusive, and unobtrusive model of referencing for non-academic audiences:
- Optimal referencing – Not every claim we make needs to be referenced. If it is a widely held view, e.g. education is important for child development, or climate change is happening, it doesn’t need to be backed up – even if research exists to support that claim. However, if we are quoting statistics (e.g. ‘the adult female literacy rate in country X is…’) or making a claim that could be externally verified or raises further questions (e.g. ‘Y district was hit particularly hard by the floods’), then we should provide references.
At a minimum, we should reference quotations, historic concepts, facts based on another writer’s original research, references to published documents, and controversial statements (see Oxfam’s guide to referencing, 2012). Importantly, you can select one or two key single references in your research blog, news or summary where further info is given.
- Inclusive referencing – We must pay special attention to referencing minority, excluded, and non-academic voices. We can also draw on sources beyond academic articles and books to make our sources more inclusive such as policy, practice, and media referencing. We can also ensure accessibility, for instance by prioritising open access references and giving URLs when possible. All this can be seen as part of ethical researching and communications.
- Unobtrusive referencing – Lots of hints on this front to avoid formal referencing and bibliographies. At a minimum, we should always know who said what and the year it was published (United Nations, 2018). If that still sounds too formal, we can avoid putting source and date in brackets at the end of a sentence, as in the previous example, and include it in the prose, ‘…according to the United Nation in 2018’ or ‘In 2018 the United Nations noted that…’. We can also use smaller fonts for the references, hyperlink them, or put them at the end of the report where they are less distracting.
Many of the documents I review in my NGO job could gain from using this ‘light referencing’ protocol – from donor proposals to evaluations, policy documents, media outputs, corporate annual reports, and research pieces. All this should help ensure that audiences and communications colleagues are happy while we still achieve our evidencing and ethical mission. Readers are right to ask us for a referencing that is inspirational, creating documents that have personality, history, and depth.
With thanks to Hilary Cornish and Louisa Johnson for their contributions
This blog was originally shared internally at Christian Aid by the Centre for Excellence in Research, Evidence and Learning www.christianaid.org.uk/our-work/research
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