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I am currently writing my masters thesis. I'm fully aware of the academic guidelines when it comes to citations.

Yet, I have a more nuanced question that maybe more stylistic in nature: when explaining a general concept, rather than specific research findings, I often use academic books as my source. Based on my understanding, I then introduce the concept in my thesis. When doing this, what do you think about citations such as "for more details see (Author, 1998)" at the end of the concept introduction part? Would you cite this in the text or rather with a footnote? Would you skip the "for more details" completely?

I do realize that a lot of researchers (which I am not, so I might not have this privilege as a masters student) tend to not cite "broader" concepts at all. That is, they introduce it in their own words without citing any sources.

Would you say I could to this as well? Even though I fostered my understanding of a concept from a book, I am able to comprehensively introduce it without looking at the source in my own words.

I know this question might come off as being obsessed with insignificant details, yet I am still wondering what the more senior guys on here think.

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    I'd agree with the word "insignificant" as in my view it doesn't make a relevant difference. Obviously "introduce in your own words" depends on your ability to choose the words well. Also, always think about what's best for the reader, i.e., ask yourself how you'd like to read it (though of course the readership may be heterogeneous). Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 11:16
  • If you're up against a length limit, you might find the abbreviation "qv." useful for "for more details see". Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 13:31
  • Thank you for the answers. Def. helps me out! Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 16:47
  • qv usually means see another page in the same book
    – Oliver882
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 16:48
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    You should look it up in a dictionary and decide for yourself
    – Oliver882
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 14:16

2 Answers 2

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If the concept is very well known in your field, then it is not essential to cite anything. But in your case, where you are a master's student and learned about it from a book, I think you should cite the book(s).

For your second bullet point, I would cite it in the text, not a footnote, but it probably depends on whether footnotes are commonly used in your field. I would drop "for more details," but it is up to you really.

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In a master's thesis there is of course more flexibility around citation styles than for peer-reviewed articles, wherein these are currently quite strict, conservative, brief, specific, and univocal. I would say that the usual practice when writing peer-reviewed papers is to stick with a single in-text citation practice, such as "this is the concept or study - this is the paper containing it". That is not the same as to say that this is the best practice nor the optimal scenario.

In my humble opinion, this -usual- method is quite unfortunate and limiting, because this style is picked out of convenience for the author, and not for the reader. I suppose that in the fields of Humanities it is more common than in Scientific-Technological fields to find different citation styles with embedded instructions for the potential audience, because their narrative styles tend to be more sophisticated and empathic (less "machine-like" so to speak) due to the authors' training in narrative styles, which is not as common in other fields.

Supposedly, when an author provides a reference, it is because they feel that the reader may want to expand information on that particular topic. However, in academic circles nowadays, citations are used for various other purposes, such as demonstrating (or sometimes just showing off) the author's research capabilities, proving that the background literature has been checked, abbreviating otherwise lengthy explanations, computing research interest indexes, etc. All this can be seen as a perversion of the original purpose of a citation, which is indeed a deference of the author towards the reader put in place so to facilitate understanding.

Ideally, whenever a citation is added, the writer could provide a -necessarily brief- guide on its nature, and other metadata, such as the specific section being referred to, or the preferred edition, or the suggested way of browsing the referred material. Thus, is should be common practice (although sadly it is not) to provide various types or references, such as not only peer-reviewed papers, but also books, book chapters, technical manuals, press clippings, magazine articles, lists of authors, websites of various kinds, or multimedia content, preferably with accompanying footnotes. However, in some circles, using references that are not strictly peer-reviewed articles can be perceived as unprofessional, specially in those contexts that monetize scientific research the most, or in those that take great pride in their attention to rigor. There are, nonetheless plenty of examples of horrible papers written in a very rigorous style (e.g., these)

Of course, the most time-saving (some would say "lazy") way to add a reference is to just drop a number in between brackets and then leave the rest of it to the audience. In my view, it should be common practice to provide two or more references per concept, instead of just one per concept, or to provide, for further study, a list of authors who delved deeply into the topic (for instance in the fields of Economics or Philosophy), instead of a narrow selection of their articles.

Furthermore, you must bear in mind that not all readers will read an article in its entirety, and even those who do will usually not check all of the references in detail; this is particularly true for scientific reviewers due to a scarcity of time and/or lack of incentives, although of course some reviewers will not need to run a deep check if the topic is narrow and they are sufficiently well-versed in the field. Sometimes they will not even feel the real need to read an article from a particular author because they have already met the author in person at several conferences, and they can read between the lines through your bibliography.

The truth of the matter is that, when later in your career you are doing cutting-edge science which goes beyond the state-of-the-art (something that everyone claims to be doing), most likely no reviewer will be sufficiently well-versed into what you are writing, so in the long term, it pays off to respect your audience as much as possible and to show off as little as possible.

Unluckily, the pressure that the pay-per-publish paradigm, the rise of predatory journals, and the scarcity of resources for research exert on both authors and reviewers prevents this from happening to a large extent. Some prominent sources are already talking about "the crisis of peer-review" (see this for instance). As a consequence, Research Assessment is a matter that is currently under scrutiny in order to prevent the current drift towards increasingly closed science (as opposed to open science) and hopefully steer it towards more fruitful lands. You will find some more information on these matters in the Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment at CoARA (recently signed by the European Commission) or in the San Francisco DORA (also endorsed by the EC).

Notwithstanding all of the above, when citing for a master's thesis you naturally want to be perceived as a professional writer so to earn a good grade and minimize your risks, so it is more likely that you will act more conservatively and less innovatively by strictly following common practice, although that is ultimately a matter for you to decide. Anyway, I would suggest to only provide lists of authors if you know their works well, and not because you just saw them linked in some Wikipedia article, since doing this will stand out to the eyes of the trained researcher. It is also advisable to always study beforehand the preferred citation styles by your educational institution, your teachers, your advisor/s, and your potential audience, and to always stick with them (if, of course, they match your own values).

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