Point of Reference

I can’t speak for others, but when I was working in local government, I didn’t think much about referencing or citations. I mean, of course I’d done it in essays as a student, and when I was in a practice role I’d try to pop some research in my assessments or reports (I still shudder about the time I confidently referred to Bowlby as Bowelby…). But by the time I was a manager it just wasn’t something I thought about much. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what referencing means, and how it means different things to different people at different times.

My job involves communicating other people’s research in ways that hopefully encourage busy people to want to read more of it. I mess up sometimes, but I try my best to credit fairly. I’ve been waiting for Bronfenbrenner to send a cease and desist letter since 2014 – I use his ‘crazy about the kid’ quote about 6 times a week… It can be easy for me to brush it off when public service colleagues use my work without referencing it. I think this is partly because my role is centred on getting research into practice, so any inclusion can feel like a win. It is also partly because I am not a proper academic, so I wonder if I don’t feel like I have the same ‘claim’ on my work.

More recently, however, I have started writing articles for academic journals about Transitional Safeguarding, and have noticed myself feeling – maybe for the first time – a bit protective over ‘my’ own work. It’s not that I don’t want colleagues in the sector to use my work (quite the opposite – it brings me utter joy to think my words could be helpful!), but I am nervous about the concept being diluted or distorted. And if I’m honest, I guess I want an acknowledgement for all the evenings and weekends I spent writing about it.  I notice myself noticing the absence of referencing, or inaccurate referencing, in organisational or policy documents and I am developing a keener sense of why it matters more than I realised earlier in my career.

We have to remember that for academic colleagues, their work – their ideas, their writing – is their livelihood. For those of us who are not producing research for a living, it might seem like using someone’s academic work is a form of flattery, but if we don’t reference properly it can feel disrespectful (which is never the intention, in my experience). In a competitive sector, as academia is, citations are professional currency – failing to credit an author is to devalue this currency (and after recent political events, we all know how damaging that can be, eh?). It is also worth remembering that too many of our academic colleagues experience precarious employment conditions, work eye-wateringly long hours and receive little thanks. Proper referencing can contribute to how impactful their work is seen to be – which can have significance for their career options and professional status. Also, y’know, manners are cool.

So, if it’s been a while since you wrote an essay (if you’re of a generation where you wrote your dissertation by hand or on a borrowed typewriter, I’m looking at you) here’s some quick tips that might help you in referencing research in your work.

If you’ve drawn on someone’s ideas, you need to include ‘in-text citations’, this means adding their surname and the year in the main body of the text. For example:

This report considers the pressing issue of snack paucity for people working at home, with some people reportedly suffering without decent biscuits for over two years (Holmes, 2022).

Or, if there’s no date available, the in-text citation would be like this:

This strategy draws on emerging evidence that team biscuits and birthday cakes in the office can play a key part in boosting organisational productivity (Holmes, no date).

If you are quoting someone directly, it’s good practice to include the page number after the year, like this:

Many researchers have noted the detrimental impact of this snack paucity on workforce morale: ‘Previously, I could have wandered over to a colleague’s desk and found a spare Jaffa Cake – these days I have to rely on what is in my fridge, which is usually old coleslaw. It’s very hard to stay motivated sometimes’ (Holmes, 2022:18).

Then at the end of your report you should have a list of ‘full references’. This means listing all the sources you used. There are a few different styles of referencing; Harvard is a common one: List them in alphabetical order of surname, then first name initial (date) title of the article, journal name, and then volume number: issue number, and pages if you have them. So the imaginary article above might be in your full references like this:

Holmes, D, (2022). ‘Cake-ing it personally: the struggle to self-motivate without office flapjack’. Journal of Snacks. Vol 17:5. Pages 17-24.

If it’s a book or a report, you can do it like this:

Firmin, C. & Knowles, R. (2022). ‘Has the purpose outgrown the design?’ in Holmes, D (Ed) Safeguarding young people: Risk, Rights, Resilience and Relationships. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications.

(I’m not going to apologise for that shameless plug, sorry.)

Anyway, there’s plenty of useful links with more detailed guidance, like this from the Open University, if you want to refresh yourself on referencing – or if no one ever taught you in the first place, after all this stuff is only obvious if you know it! 

Lastly, and I am thinking of strategic reports or policy documents (not student essays, to be clear), if you want to include someone’s work and don’t know how to reference it, you can always contact them and ask how they want to be credited. In my experience, most academics will be thrilled that you are using their work – and by giving them credit, you are saying thank you for all their hard work (which they do to help you in your hard work).  When we are all under pressure, as we are, a little bit of credit banks a lot of goodwill.

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