Good Scholars Cite Their Sources and Cite Them Well! Or Do They?

In my previous post, I talked about what it takes or what it means to be a good scholar. I thought that that post was an important reflection upon what good scholarship should be, especially from someone who has just finished his PhD degree and assumed his first career job. I particularly listed in that post five essential criteria of good scholarship—of course, they are only based upon my own opinion and belief. It’s been a while now since my last post, but it’s time now that I follow up that previous post with one important thing that I have totally neglected and ignored when I reflected upon the characteristics of good scholarship. This important thing has to do with one of the basic and main responsibilities of a good scholar—research and writing, and more specifically, citing sources (or documentation) in research and writing. It wasn’t that I had not thought of this topic before, but I had presumed that it is one common thing that all scholars—not just good scholars—are aware of and familiar with. Unfortunately, I perhaps was just naïve to readily presume that this was a “given fact” in scholarship. Let me explain.

I think that it is fair to say that anyone who has earned a PhD degree has been engaged in research and writing for probably a minimum of six or seven years, and this does not include the years one has spent doing their undergrad degree. For this reason, it should go without saying that scholars know how to cite their sources and cite them well. It is even fair to say that scholars should have learned or even mastered the skills of documenting their research papers. I am absolutely not saying that the documentation in every research paper needs to be letter-perfect. As an editor, I set “perfection” as my standard in editing my own and others’ research papers, but I still fail, and I know that I will always fail to reach that standard. Nevertheless, I did set a standard for myself, so that I can and will continue to develop and improve in my skills in this particular area. Perhaps one may argue that that’s the job of an editor. But shouldn’t all scholars be the editor of their own work as well? What I am saying is that scholars need to pay attention to this very important element in their research and writing (needless to say, many research and writing books have said this same thing time and time again!). I observe that there are a couple of reasons why some scholars do a poor job in this area. It is definitely not a matter of talent or ability, but it is likely a matter of academic professionalism and attitude.

I often hear some scholars say that they are just not good at documenting their papers. Granting that this is true, well, after many years of writing countless number of papers in graduate school, can any scholar still make such an excuse or alibi? Granting that after all these years one still cannot document their papers properly, what does this tell us now? There are at least two possible reasons why this is the scenario, both of which has nothing to do with one’s talent or ability. The first reason is laziness. I can sympathize and even empathize with those who say that documenting a research paper (i.e., creating footnotes or endnotes and bibliography) takes a lot of time and effort. But when one is serious and responsible in their scholarship, in other words, when they call themselves a good scholar, they will take their time and exert their effort to document their sources and document them well. We cannot use a lack of ability as an excuse for simply being lazy. This brings us to the second reason—a lack of courtesy, professionalism, and consideration of others—readers, proofreaders, and editors. Some scholars think that it is the duty of others to do the documentation and editing of their papers for them, either because they have paid a proofreader to edit their papers or because they have submitted their papers to an editor. This scenario simply shows that scholars who have this kind of attitude are not serious about their scholarship (no matter how brilliant and popular they are and what stage of scholarship they are in) and that they are dependent upon others to do their own scholarly work for them. It may even show a condescending attitude towards others in that one considers their own work to be too important so that the editing and polishing of their work is left for and relegated to others to complete.

I understand that perhaps many people will not like what I have said in this post. But I honestly believe that this is another basic and important characteristic of good scholarship—being able to document sources and document them well. My intention here is assuredly not to criticize any particular scholar. It is rather to remind and encourage everyone, especially those who want to call themselves good scholars, to pay attention to this important element of good scholarship. One will never regret but will be glad that they have paid attention to this one thing in their scholarly work.

— Hughson T. Ong

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