Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Citations Have Two Purposes

I hear a lot of misunderstanding regarding citations, so I feel compelled to address the subject with a series of articles. What are the basic principles governing citations?


Principle #1 – Citations Have Two Purposes

We provide citations to our sources for two major reasons, although we generally vocalize just one:

        1.  To locate our sources

There is another very important, yet often overlooked reason for citing sources:

        2.  To communicate the strength of our sources

“Source citations have two purposes,” says Elizabeth Shown Mills in Evidence Explained. She writes that a citation should deal with “[second reason:] a source’s quality and content, not just [first reason:] identity and whereabouts.” 1

Turabian says that citing facts allows readers to “[second reason:] judge their reliability, even [first reason:] check them if they wish.” 2

Legal Citations

An article in The Florida Bar Journal states that

Citation forms provide the minimum amount of information necessary to [first reason:] lead the reader to the source and [second reason:] to convey other key information concerning the source, including the character and degree of support the authority provides and the nature and date of the authority.3

Scientific Citations

Sometimes just a name and date communicate strengthIn some fields as little as a name and a publication date, the so-called author-date style, can communicate the strength of a source. Full citations at the end of an article give the location of the source and a full indication of quality.

Numbered superscripts are replaced with an inline reference to an author's surname and the cited article's publication date. For well known experts, this communicates source strength without the interruption of sending readers to the end notes.

This style works well when:

  • Research results must be published to be official.
  • Leaders in a field are known by their reputations.
  • Recent sources provide the most up-to-date information.
  • Journals are peer reviewed.


In conclusion, a good citation does more than locate the source; it provides a quick, visual indication of its quality.

Next time I will talk about what a citation must include to satisfy both purposes for genealogical citations.


     1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, PDF image (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 43; emphases in the original.

     2. Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations : Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, 7th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 133.

     3. Susan W. Fox and Wendy S. Loquasto, “Citation Form: Keeping Up with the Times,” The Florida Bar Journal 81, no. 1 (2007): 23; online archive, The Florida Bar ( : accessed 4 April 2011).

     Image: Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen, “Measuring and Explaining Management Practices Across Firms and Countries,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 122, no. 4 (November 2007): 1358; author’s online copy ( ment.pdf : accessed 10 August 2010); author-date callouts added by Robert Raymond in “Citing Online Records in new FamilySearch,” PowerPoint slide presentation, 2010, used with permission.


  1. Don't know if Europe has different practises but what you call "scientific citation" looks to me just a different way to cite a literature source. In the examples in the picture the source is a complete book or article where the pertinent thoughts were presented. It is also possible to add a page number after the publication year. The important thing is to have the full publication details in the literature list at the end.

  2. I'd tread lightly on the "expert source". Today's experts have been known to become tomorrow's charlatans! Experts held back the progress of science for centuries back in the middle ages.

    Citation to an Internet source is useless although today's experts show a detailed methodology - tomorrow the site won't be there! Make a copy - file it - cite the copy and briefly where it originated.

  3. The abbreviated scientific citation style works well not because of the reputation of the authors cited, but because the works cited are peer reviewed.

  4. Excellent summary of the TWO reasons for citations. Most people never think beyond the first reason, unfortunately, and get hung-up on format rather than purpose.

  5. :) Great series.

    I like Mills three essentials from _Evidence Explained_ (2007), p. 38, "evaluation, identification, and description."

    I'd like to see more, too, about "working file" citations. Perhaps not it's intent, but the _Board for Certification of Genealogists_, "FAQs" seems to touch on the concept. From the part, "Style Guides," in part, "when major scholarly journals publish abbreviated citations, the research they publish will have undergone extensive peer-review and fact-checking to ensure that it meets standards of the field."

    At the early stage, my canvas for any assertion, individual or family is pretty clean. With more information, I'm going to find conflicts, have questions about what something means, etc. When I begin to close in on what seems an exhaustive search (from another life, critical mass), some conflicts will have been resolved, others contained; proof statements become refined.

    In genealogy software, even when an assertion is spot on with the source data, I keep the specific evidence reference from the source in my citation. In a working file, I abstract a census entry into a master source record.

    From the same part of _Evidence Explained_ (2007), "As researchers, we should continue to evaluate the credibility of every source against new evidence. To do that, our research notes must do more than merely name a source and cite its location. Our notes should also describe the source in sufficient detail that we, at any future point, can reconsider our evaluation. As writers, we owe our readers that same description, so that they can better assess the soundness of our judgment ..."

  6. You said "In some fields both purposes can be met with as little as a name and a publication date, the so-called author-date style. This style works well when:".

    I think you're not looking deeply enough. In my field, this is what appears in the narrative instead of a footnote. It is merely indicates the information that the reader needs to consult the associated REFERENCES CITED at the end of the article/book.

    Also I give newbies a different, additional pair of reasons for citing sources (which I think are imperative):
    a) it gives credit to the people who have done work before you (since you may be citing a COMPILATION document rather than a primary source)
    b) it allows those who continue your research in the future to verify the captured information and compare it with other (possibly discrepant) sources.


  7. I have found Citation Machine at to be useful with citations.

    I believe research is only as reliable as the sources. Too often on ancestry's family trees no sources are given expect other trees.


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