Before the Prime Minister dramatically demoted Michael Gove for being unpopular on a potentially election-losing scale, the former Education Secretary wrote in the Mail on Sunday under the headline “I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools”. In the article, he claimed: “Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.”
This struck retired teacher Janet Downs as odd. So she wrote to the Department for Education, requesting details of these surveys. Nearly a month later, at the end of period allowed under the Freedom of Information Act, the response came: “Unfortunately, I am not able to provide you with the details of the survey as it was commissioned and conducted by UKTV Gold.” Ms Downs was unsatisfied and replied: “Michael Gove referred to ‘survey after survey’. This indicates that there was more than just one. But you have given me the name of only one. Would it be fair to say that there was actually only one survey and not several as Mr Gove said?” Once again, the reply arrived at the very end of the time available legally. The other “survey’s” (sic) were said to be: “a survey of 2000 11 to 16 year olds by Premier Inn; a study commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of 1000 children aged 11 to 18 to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London; a report by Professor Robert Tombs for think-tank Politeia; an article by London Mums Magazine; and research carried out by the Sea Cadets to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.”
This was understandably ridiculed in the Independent, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and at the Huffington Post. Ms Downs offered an explanation of what might have gone wrong: “Gove says he is in favour of ‘evidence-based’ policies. However, it’s unclear what value there is in ‘evidence’ which includes surveys of dubious reliability – unless, of course, they’re chosen simply because they support Gove’s point of view.”
The Gove Fallacy, we might say, is assuming you can get away with playing fast and loose with the details, without checking up on the sources of your information, because you think you’re clever enough or have a firm enough grasp on the subject already. Moreover, you might assume it doesn’t need questioning because it supports what appears to be self-evidently the case. All of which was lurking behind the former Education Secretary’s claims. His mindset – one of: other people have ideologies, I have common sense – was what made them possible.
This gives us some clue as to why it’s important to reference in academic writing. There are in fact three reasons to reference:
- To show you can. This might sound trivial, but it’s always worth making it easy for your tutor to give you credit. Make it blindingly obvious you can do the things they’re looking for. Making correct use of scholarly conventions, including referencing, is one of them.
- So someone else can check your sources. Depending on your level of study and the quality of your work, this might be to ensure your interpretation of the text is valid and you’ve not plagiarised, or it might be out of interest in what you’ve uncovered. They’re either checking your tracks or following in your footsteps, but either way your academic credibility relies on making sure they can.
- To make you question yourself. It’s an important part of the writing process to question yourself as you write. Rewriting and re-rewriting helps here, but so does digging out the citation for a point you remember from your reading. You’ll be surprised how often what you remember is actually a little different from what you read.
Once we’ve accepted that referencing is not optional, perhaps even that it’s worthwhile, the next two questions are: when and how?
- When to reference: I’ve suggested before that there is a trick for knowing when to reference. We tend to ask what sort of information needs a reference, but there is a better way – if we remember that academic writing is functional. I wrote, in my History Essay Checklist, that there are only five valid functions for any sentence in an essay: topic sentence, historiography, argument, supporting evidence and conclusion. Forget trying to figure out if the date of the 1945 general election is a well enough known fact to go unsourced. Just remember that two of those five types of sentence (historiography and supporting evidence) will always need a reference. If a sentence does, perhaps combined with another, one of those things: reference. If you’re not sure which it does: rewrite. If it doesn’t do any of them: delete. In this way, checking your references should be part of tidying up your writing before submitting it.
- How to reference: Here it gets tricky, because there is no one agreed system of referencing. Social science departments tend to use Harvard citations, with brackets at the end of the sentence, while humanities departments will typically expect footnotes. To make things worse, there are myriad versions of footnote referencing, and the books and journals you read will all use different variations. This means you should always follow the guidance of your tutor and your department. That said, you will typically find the format is as follows: Who, what, where, when, which bit (usually page numbers, but perhaps chapter for e-publications with no pages). Then anything required on how and when accessed. This is generally the case whether the ‘where’ is the city of publication for a book, the collection in which a document is found or the website or journal where a particular article was published. Fitting this to the specific requirements of your institution or course will vary. But when you’re doing your reading and making your notes, these are the details you should always make sure you jot down. Without them, you’re bound to miss something at some point.
Referencing can often be one of the harder academic conventions to get to grips with. But, as the former Education Secretary nicely demonstrated for us, it is worth doing – and doing properly.