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First of all, I know that academic writing is ordinarily not a place to jam-pack in large quantities of literary, theatrical, film, or other pop-culture allusions, references, or parodies, but sometimes one or two references, tastefully done, can add some levity to content that might otherwise seem quite dull.

Now clearly, if I am writing a paper about a work of literature (or film, etc.) and quote or paraphrase material from that work, I need a citation. My question is if I am referencing a work solely for effect and not for the content of the work, do I need a citation?

For example, consider the following hypothetical literature review:

The prevailing authorities on translongitudinal hypotheosis remain Smith (1987) and Myers & Johansen (1997), but several more recent researchers, including Jones (2006), McGivers et al. (2013) and Frank & Stein (2020), refuse to recognize their authoritah and instead propose that the hyperspacial gradient when n < 3 is not bounded to the translongitudinal apex rotary, citing certain data sets which Brown (2022) asserts are spurious and tainted by multiple methodological and ethical infirmities.

For the above, is it necessary to cite Parker, Stone et al. or would I only cite if the subject of my paper actually touched on the content of South Park?

Similarly, if I am writing a paper on cetacean nutrition and decide to drop in one or two Moby Dick allusions just for effect, do I need to cite it?

Or, maybe something like this:

The work of Hernandez et al. (2017) is a pathway to findings many would consider tainted by precognitive bias and postreticular smoothing.

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  • 18
    I think a citation of Parker, Stone et al would just come across as an extension of the joke. Mar 19, 2023 at 18:23
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    If you absolutely must include a joke like that, I would recommend placing it in a footnote rather than in the main text. That makes it a little clearer that it's an aside and that the reader does not need to expend mental energy into understanding that part.
    – tparker
    Mar 19, 2023 at 19:13
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    is the above comment by tparker an opinion from Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, that he'd prefer to be in the footnotes? Mar 20, 2023 at 3:53
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    I am French. South Park does not exist here and the references either look like a typo, or something I do not understand because I am not a native speaker of English. You will lose a lot of audiences outside of the US/Canada.
    – WoJ
    Mar 20, 2023 at 11:01
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    If your paper is all impenetrable gibberish such as the examples you use, then no possible harm can occur.
    – Wastrel
    Mar 20, 2023 at 14:33

6 Answers 6

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I suspect that the consensus answer in academia is:

Don't do it in the first place.

The standard writing style in academia avoids unnecessary ornaments, and aims for a detached, objective tone. Allusions that require a shared culture beyond the norms of the academic field risk making the text less accessible, less understandable.

If you do it anyway, adding a citation to the sample text would be misleading to an unethical extent: It would make it sound as if South Park directly commented on the reception of Smith (1997) etc. On the other hand, not saying anything makes it even less comprehensible for people unfamiliar with South Park (or whatever else gets referenced), and at least for some allusions like this there might indeed be a sufficient stylistic contribution that giving credit seems necessary.

As such, if you insist on having such allusions in your text, my suggestion would be to have a separate list of "Memes invoked" or similar, and then point to that rather than the bibliography here.

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    Sadly, I would have to agree. I'm all for having this kind of 'fun', but it's hard enough to get published as it is without extraneous matters interfering. If one reaches the place in one's career (e.g., have tenure) where it no longer matters, it could still be risky if the reference is offensive, which it very possibly could be. Mar 20, 2023 at 12:11
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    If you have to explain a joke, it ceases to be funny. So going the route suggested in the last paragraph makes the allusions pointless.
    – Barmar
    Mar 20, 2023 at 20:51
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    Imagine a person 100 years in the future reading your paper. They shouldn't have to sift through pop culture references to understand what you're trying to get across.
    – safay
    Mar 20, 2023 at 22:33
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    If done well, cultural reference jokes can elicit a smile from readers who get it, and go all but unnoticed by readers who don’t (so no harm done); e.g., I invoked Star Wars once when linking the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle with an old linguistics theory by segueing, “Meanwhile, a long time ago in a field far, far away, Linguist Researcher (1896) said…”. But the example given in the question is just bad. It clashes with the tone of the paragraph, it doesn’t make sense, and whether you’re familiar with the meme or not, you’ll almost certainly be left nonplussed. Mar 22, 2023 at 12:28
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To give a personal example, I simply assumed that "authoritah" was a typo and I kept waiting to find the allusion you mentioned, and it wasn't until I clicked your link that I even understood what you were talking about. I also have no idea who Parker, Stone et al. are.

By the same token, even having read Moby Dick a couple of times, I have no idea what the allusion is in your second quote.

In other words, there's a very real risk of alienating a considerable part of your audience with things like that.

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    That's because the second quote is nothing to do with Moby-Dick: it's a reference to Star Wars Episode III. Mar 20, 2023 at 9:30
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    @EspeciallyLime There ya go. :) I saw that film at least five times, and I didn't recognize the reference. (Then again, last time was ten or fifteen years ago...) Thanks for the clarification. Mar 20, 2023 at 10:07
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    I don't understand the reference embedded in that quote and I've seen the movie many times. Does "postreticular smoothing" have anything to do with "smooth brain", and what does it have to do with RotS in particular? Mar 21, 2023 at 3:52
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    @LieutenantZipp: The wording of the sentence is a reference to the line "The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural." Mar 21, 2023 at 11:59
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    @user2357112 That... is obscure beyond belief. Even if there were laws enforced by courts about adding citations to references of literary works, no one, and I do mean no one, would ever come to terms over the two words "some consider". I use that expression regularly in my day-to-day speech, for instance. "Pathways to" is maybe a bit of a stronger link, but I don't using a particular turn of phrase even counts as an allusion, let alone a citable one. Mar 21, 2023 at 16:02
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Without a citation, many references to current entertainment culture, especially things like TV shows, will be simply lost on many people, especially those from a different culture. They might be left puzzled as I was by this and by some things at XKCD.

If you want to make a humorous reference to current or local culture, remember that your audience may not have the same set of experiences that you do.

I'm not so strong on whether you should or shouldn't do this, but if you do, make it clear. Let your grandma in on the joke.


Instead of the link and naming XKCD, suppose I'd just written "some references made by Randall". Or even "Randall Munroe", though the latter would make a Google search easier.

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I disagree with other answers, and think making the reference is itself benign (and may amuse some people), but the one thing you should not do is explain it.

João Mendes suggests there is a risk of alienating your readers. I disagree, because the people who don't recognise the reference won't know there was a reference to recognise, so won't be alienated. And this is not a problem, because they lose nothing (from an academic point of view) by missing it. You should just treat it as an Easter egg. What might alienate people is having a footnote basically telling them "there was an amusing[citation needed] reference here, but you missed it".

The alternative is to lose a reference that some people may appreciate, without any benefit to anyone else. Physics would be slightly duller had Murray Gell-Mann never made his gratuitous James Joyce reference, and I say this as someone who would not have recognised it. (Gell-Mann did feel the need to add a citation of Finnegan's Wake here, although his earlier "eightfold way", itself an allusion to Buddhism, went unexplained.)

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    I agree with this, with one large caveat: The text must be readable and understandable for somebody who does not get the reference. If it flies completely over their head and is unnoticed, then it is hard to claim any kind of harm. For example, I don't think "recognize their authoritah" is a good reference to put in - it looks really odd unless you know South Park and breaks the reading flow. On the other hand, the second reference is perfectly readable, if somewhat flowery, without knowing the reference.
    – Frodyne
    Mar 20, 2023 at 10:45
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    @Frodyne yes, agreed. Although like João I would have just assumed "authoritah" was a typo. That is also the sort of thing that an equally oblivious referee might "correct", and I think the author should accept such a correction. Mar 20, 2023 at 10:49
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    Such a sentence about recognizing authority is of course also very out of place in academic writing even without the "typo". One never recognizes authority. A much more appropriate sentence would talk about disagreement and explain why there is disagreement. There is no authority in science. If I read this intro I would at the very least assume the author to not be familiar with academia and academic writing. I would probably assume worse and not read the paper.
    – Kvothe
    Mar 20, 2023 at 11:12
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    This works if you're Terry Pratchett, who could spin a joke over most readers' heads without them even noticing it, while those who did get it were delighted. Most people don't have that skill.
    – TRiG
    Mar 20, 2023 at 20:17
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    @Kvothe Not only that, but isn't the line in South Park "Respect my authoritah"? The only allusion is the spelling to match how Cartman pronounces it (spoofing southern cops).
    – Barmar
    Mar 20, 2023 at 20:55
2

Bringing up a litarary or movie allusion requires a citation, unless the saying is known to anyone, see an example below.

While generally it is not advisable to bring such allusions into scientific texts, there exists one notable exception where this is permissible: mottoes, both to articles and to separate sections.

In one paper, I saw a section presenting some derivation in such a painful detail that it would be more appropriate to a textbook. To justify this, the authors equipped the section with the motto: " What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence." (Samuel Johnson)

Another paper contained a section devoted to an extremely slow astrophysical process related to the formation of planetary systems in the universe, over timescales from millions to billions years. That section had a right motto: " The mills of God grind slowly..." -- and without a reference to the source, because this saying is known to everyone.

Aside from mottoes, I would not recommend you to use literary or movie allusions.

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    "and without a reference to the source, which is known to everyone": Never assume that in an international context. In fact, I didn't know that expression. Mar 19, 2023 at 19:35
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    @Michael_1812 Don't underestimate the impact of language on recognizing phrases. The phrase in English didn't ring a bell for me. Once you mentioned that it's from the Bible, I translated it into German, and voila.
    – Arno
    Mar 20, 2023 at 0:16
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    @Michael_1812 Where does "the mills of God" appear in the Bible? I've found references to first century Greek literature (Plutarch), and of course Longfellow's translation from a 17th century German epigram, but I find no Bible references.
    – Llaves
    Mar 20, 2023 at 3:26
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    Though unintentional, I think this is a brilliant answer that perfectly illustrates the danger of assuming that any universal references exist.
    – Frodyne
    Mar 20, 2023 at 9:29
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    So it seems like this should say "without a reference to the source, because the original source is not known." Which is a good enough reason not to attribute it. Mar 20, 2023 at 11:57
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Just about every policy on plagiarism I can find exempts "common knowledge" from citation.

I suppose the example you cite suggests that the SouthParkian "authoritah" has reached the status of common knowledge (or you wouldn't be using it in that way), and therefore, it arguably does not require citation.

My own suggestion here would be to stick to the facts, and not try to funny it up.

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