Journal articles are packed with in-text citations of other works to validate points and situate the work in the context of past works. What about undergraduate textbooks with multiple chapter authors? Each chapter author is likely to be an expert in the field. Are citations necessary in this case as for any other academic work? Or do citations interrupt the smooth reading of the text for undergraduates? Or are they less necessary (or less numerous) because the authors are experts?

I'm editing a textbook and want to have some uniformity among the chapters regarding the need for citations and the number of citations. Each chapter will have a reference list.

  • 1
    Is this book supposed to be closer to a wide survey course for first-year students, or an upper level undergrad class introducing current research questions? Seems to me it depends more on that (i.e. the material) than whether the authors are experts.
    – Anyon
    May 30, 2018 at 0:20
  • 1
    In addition to what @Anyon said, this is also very field specific. Very few mathematics textbooks (upper level undergraduate or graduate level) provide citations for results, and in the rare cases when one is given, the citation is usually to an expository article for enrichment reading purposes. On the other hand, undergraduate nursing textbooks are densely packed with citations to research literature. May 30, 2018 at 6:17
  • I would call this a survey text that will be used in courses in women's studies and sociology for all undergraduate years. A typical chapter topic might be "the inclusion of women in traditionally male occupations" or "bias against immigrant women in administrative jobs." The chapters don't take an empirical approach. The authors were instructed to use a narrative style that would appeal to undergraduates rather than an empirical-journal approach.
    – Eggy
    May 30, 2018 at 11:23

3 Answers 3


My view is that in-text citations to relevant, pedagogical references are very useful. Introduction to Electrodynamics by David J. Griffiths is an excellent example.

Are citations necessary in this case as for any other academic work?

Yes. They are still an ethical obligation, but they might not be in-text.

Or do citations interrupt the smooth reading of the text for undergraduates?

Obviously yes, but in my opinion that is unimportant.

Or are they less necessary (or less numerous) because the authors are experts?

The identity of the author is irrelevant to the ethical obligation to cite prior work.

  • Why exactly is there an ethical obligation to cite the work of others in an undergraduate survey text? I can see why a chapter would be less authoritative if statements aren't backed up with evidence (even though the author is relying on his or her own authority to avoid citations). But if I'm not mistaken the only ethical obligation is to avoid plagiarism. I'm just confused by your framing the question in ethical terms. In a journal article or dissertation, citations (in the literature review) show a gap in current knowledge. This isn't needed in an introductory text.
    – Eggy
    Jun 6, 2018 at 23:28
  • @eggy if prior work was used but not cited, it is plagiarism. The same rules apply to all academic work, without regard to audience. As an extreme example, if I, as an academic, were writing for the popular press I would include citations then too, though in a less formal format. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/62999/… Jun 7, 2018 at 1:32
  • Perhaps an example will help. An author writes, "Black women are disadvantaged on the job market with respect to salaries and working conditions. Compared to their white same-sex peers, they earn less, work longer hours, and wait longer for promotions." In a journal article these statements would need citations for proof. But the author of an undergraduate textbook chapter isn't referring to any specific previous work; she is, rather, giving uncontroversial background information, based on the authors expertise.
    – Eggy
    Jun 8, 2018 at 12:53
  • There are 2 different issues here: (1) Failing to provide citations to support one’s argument, especially if it’s controversial in any way (pontification), and (2) plagiarism (failing to cite sources). My original question pertains to the first case. Sorry, I should have clarified that in my question.
    – Eggy
    Jun 8, 2018 at 13:12

Given the topics that you mention, I think citations would be particularly important. When I copyedit an undergrad textbook, I query the author if he or she has not provided a citation for data or a direct quote. But I also query the author if the claims made are not backed up. If there are insufficient citations, the text comes across like a blog instead of a textbook--just a lot of pontificating without any evidence and support.

  • Thank you. This is a helpful insight. I was noticing this "pontification" lacking evidence and it was concerning.
    – Eggy
    Jun 6, 2018 at 23:24

Including the citations can be very helpful, but also distracting for students. One possible compromise is to write the body of the text without citations (or just the few that are most important), and have a section of "Notes" at the end of each chapter providing references and extra information.

So, for instance, the main text could say:

The percentage of women in field X increased substantially during the 1990s...

and the Notes section could have

Women in field X increased from 43% in 1993 to 72% in 1998 (Gonzalez 2004).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .