Citations to Research

Part of the process of justification for conducting research that scholars engage in is the citation to existing research as a prelude or rationale for additional research. Ultimately, the process of research begins with some statement about the lack of knowledge or understanding that exists within the current literature. If the existing research could answer the question that a researcher is posing, then no justification exists to undertake additional research. The underlying justification for research lies somehow in the lack of knowledge or evidence for a particular point or claim. The assumption is that a search of the existing literature and the failure to find adequate information motivates the collection and analysis of data to evaluate a hypothesis or answer a research question. This entry summarizes the types of literature that are typically examined by scholars prior to conducting research and the importance of doing so, followed by recommendations for what types of literature to cite in a current study and how much of it should be summarized.

The implication of the process of research involves using the existing literature to justify some assumptions or claims that one makes when undertaking the research. First, scholars use the literature to examine what claims, outcomes, or facts could be considered to exist about something. Stating what is known, and the limitations of what is known, begins the process of setting out the limits of knowledge that a scholar wishes to extend, change, test, or establish. A review of the literature requires a complete review of relevant literature on the topic to illustrate what area in the existing literature’s array of investigations should be supplemented.

A second set of literature that requires review is the relevant theoretical literature. The invocation of a particular theoretical perspective requires a demonstration of the relevance and understanding of the argument as applied to the particular circumstances of the investigation. Citation to this literature indicates a setting out of potential axioms or theorems that applied to the setting to generate specific hypotheses for testing. Theories are statements that organize the relationships among variables. Understanding what ordering exists among elements of the system permits the generation of hypotheses about relationships that should exist if the underlying systemic descriptions are accurate. Understanding and representing that literature serves as the basis for both methodological choices as well as the creation of hypotheses.

A third set of literature that requires citations is the methodological issues involved in the conduct of the research. If the research involves the use of established scales, a review of the relevant research can establish the validity and reliability of the scale employed. Quantitative, critical, qualitative, or rhetorical methods indicate a process that is often invoked, and the particulars of that process are typically identified and the investigation structured to reflect the process. In many cases, there exist a variety of options for a procedure and the reader of the manuscript needs to know which of the specific procedures the researcher employed to understand the research. Before readers can evaluate the methods used, the process requires description and justification from previous investigations. In many cases, the decision to prefer one approach may reflect the research of others, so that justification should be presented.

In addition, the need to not “reinvent the wheel” exists; using an established scale or procedure can be accomplished by reference to a citation rather than spending valuable time describing and explaining the details. If one is coding a set of behaviors using an established system (e.g., Facial Affect Coding System), a person can refer to a manual or published document that describes the system rather than presenting a lengthy detailed explanation of the procedure. The assumption is that anyone interested in the details can examine the document cited to learn more about the system employed. The citation provides the writer with the ability to become efficient in the manuscript by providing access to a complete set of information without becoming redundant or needlessly using up valuable space in the document. Often, members of the research community interested in the particulars of a topic are well versed in the procedure and the citation provides enough information for them as readers to understand the process the researcher used to generate or analyze the data. The impact of citations to previous research in this case serves the need for efficiency without loss of information, since the entire set of information becomes available for referring to the information contained in the cited manuscript.

A fourth set of issues involves a critique of the design of the investigation. No investigation can employ all methods and all procedures. Such choices need to be considered and in the limitations section the implications of that choice for the interpretation and application of the results should be explored. The arguments over those choices do not exist in a vacuum; usually existing literature by scholars consider and raise similar, if not the same, points. The particulars of the current investigation may have been generated from an existing critique in previous research, but such extensions may not address all possibilities considered in the previous discussion. Research often advances in very small steps and fails to address all issues within a single investigation. Most manuscripts contain a discussion that provides a set of limitations to the existing research. A citation to that limitation, recognized by the original authors, can be used to justify the importance and value of the subsequent research. In addition to providing limitations of the research, the discussion section will often suggest additional future research to explore questions coming from the current research.

The conduct of research involves a set of choices, including the underlying theories employed to the particular methods used to collect and analyze the empirical information. The limitations section provides the potential for a contrast and comparison to other scholars considering the same question using either a different theoretical position or an alternative methodology. The area of growth in research often involves the consideration of alternative explanations, measures, contexts, and situations not covered by existing research. The examination of existing literature involves not simply a description of what exists but an assessment of that current literature. The assessment of current literature should reflect an examination of the complete literature. Providing an assessment of existing research when only including a small portion of the available literature indicates a failure of the scholar to conduct a complete search. Essentially, an incomplete search may indicate the lack of need for the investigation; the argument is that the answer exists in the literature but the investigator failed to conduct a proper literature review. The citation to existing research provides evidence for the proof that the author has conducted the search and the assessment is complete.

Mike Allen

See also Acknowledging the Contribution of Others; Authorship Bias; Authorship Credit; Citation Analyses; Plagiarism; Plagiarism, Self-; Writing a Literature Review

Further Readings

Allen, M., Titsworth, S., & Hunt, S. K. (2009). Quantitative research in communication. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Mike Allen
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