Back in the heydays of my career I knew the content of a few hundred scientific papers by heart in the field I worked in and I had a passing knowledge of several hundred more. When I wrote an paper, I could make arguments and cite on the fly which paper covered the statement I just made. This made it really easy to write introductions [section 1] and “experimental descriptions” [section 2] (in my case coding) (in science that’s nearly the only place that abounds in citations seeing that the rest of the article will be original research [section 3] and the conclusion [section 4]).

Of course, in science and academia as a whole, citations act as the social currency. The idea is that the more citations you have, the better your work is. It’s kinda like thinking that the best literature can be found on the NY Times bestseller list. It’s far from perfect, but it’s what we have. Citations are also helpful for complete beginners so they can look things up. However, once one knows the material, one no longer looks up citations. Also, while it was once very difficult to find a relevant article on, say, X-ray scattering in thin plasmas or whatever, search engines and online archives has made this a lot easier. Hence, even from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know anything about the field (e.g. first year grad students), citations are no longer as useful as they once were.

However, traditions die hard. Why do people still listen to lectures when the original reason for their creation was that students could take notes on their own because it would be too expensive to print books and copy machines hadn’t been invented? We’re talking a tradition that’s outdated by several hundred years. Why do people still go to conferences to disseminate new research despite the existence of web technology that could broadcast new research instantly? Tradition! It’s because people in academia get promoted based on how many talks they’ve given and how many papers, they’ve published; not the popularity of their website.

Now that I’m retired from physics, I don’t bother with citations any more. I feel that in this day and age, statements are extremely easy to verify. I don’t see the point of citing a source if I, for example, say that unemployment numbers in the US were 9.1% in August 2011. It is so easy to look such factoids up on the internet compared to the old days where a statement like that would have been a nightmare to verify.

Furthermore, being an independent writer whose success doesn’t depend on the number of citations I collect, I don’t see the point in mutual back patting and citing people to connect my work to theirs hoping they will do the same(*).

Also, very importantly, since I don’t write “review articles” of the type “He said this, but she said that”, which I believe constitutes the very foundation of research in the humanities (*zing*) but rather present ideas that are original, or perhaps more accurately an original mix or rather well-known ideas, I just don’t see the point.

(*) Uh, blogging is actually often like that. Ack!

Writing a piece with citations in it for the first time is a lot of work. It requires keeping track of two pieces of information: What was said and whoever said it. Write a piece without citations and you only have to remember what was said. If you get in the habit of the latter, you can now remember and control twice as many facts!

This is a huge boon to a generalist. It’s much easier to keep track of things in a narrow fields. Many authors will write multiple papers and one develops a deep familiarity with present and former colleagues and their writing. When writing about interdisciplinary things, the problem is that one only has a shallow understanding of what is a vast area of knowledge(**).

I could draw a curve here, but hopefully you see what I mean. Dealing in citations and references reduces the efficiency and one’s ability to make connections between facts (because there are fewer of them). You can think of it like this. Suppose I have 20 memory cells. Between those cells I can make 20×20 = 400 different connections. Out of those 400 connections, maybe 5% are relevant, thus I get 20 “good ideas”.

(**) I have written close to 900 blog posts on ERE. I definitely do not remember all of them! There may be some kind of equivalent principle to Dunbar’s number operating here.

However, suppose I use my 20 cells to store 10 pieces of information and 10 citations. I can now make 10×10=100 connections. Supposing 5% are relevant, that gives me 5 “good ideas”.

I just dropped my effectiveness by a factor four! This is the main reason I don’t bother with remembering exactly who said what and where.

On a general note, this is important if you try to support a social network like academia or a high school clique. It is not important to me.

Of course, one could have a computerized database to keep the citations. It is grunt work to maintain such a database and thus it only works in a specialized field where one can indeed read everything.

In conclusion, there’s a reason there are no citations in the ERE book. There won’t be any in the INV book either. It is presumed that statements can simply be verified by googling them. Of course that’s not to say that I don’t acknowledge that “I stand on the shoulders of giants”. This is why I favor rather large bibliographies. I just don’t bother to connect every piece of information with that bibliography.

I’ll leave that for someone else to do if they’re so inclined. It has no value to me.

Originally posted 2011-09-19 10:16:51.