Though I read this style quite often, I was recently told unambiguously by a reviewer that I was NOT supposed to use citations "as if they are objects in a sentence." The following sentence is an example of what the reviewer considered unacceptable:

We analyzed the data using the Wilmerding method, guided by [12].

The references section might include the following:

[12] Smith, D., Marshawn, J., & Devenshaw, A. 2011. Techniques and Procedures for Applying the Wilmerding Method. Prince Publications, Inc, New York, NY.

The Wilmerding method1 is not a step-by-step algorithm that can be precisely followed as if by a machine, and thus [12] does not provide a step-by-step algorithmic description but rather guidance for using the method. [12] is a relatively slim but authoritative textbook about how to use the Wilmerding method.

Within this question, for the purpose of discussion, I have intentionally put [12] in grammatical positions where it's an important element of the sentence and the sentence would make less sense without the reference. Sometimes that seems to be the most efficient way to communicate the intended message. Is using a reference as a grammatical sentence element like this OK? Why might this not be considered acceptable? Should I be rewording those sentences? Is it enough of a violation to be worth passing the note on to authors of papers I review?

I considered posting this on EL&U but it seems more specific to academia than general English usage, and the comment came from a content reviewer rather than a copy editor. This question is related but it seems to be more about when to put authors names' in vs. outside of the parentheses in an APA-like style.

The numbered citation style (as opposed to following APA, for example) is required by the venue.

1: Fictionalized for the purpose of this discussion

  • I wonder how many people know how to use things like \textcite in LaTeX.
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 10:45
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    My impression is that there are two styles of writing: Either citations are regular components of the sentence (e.g., "From [13], we conclude that" or "As is proven in [12], we have" or as you say "guided by [2]"), or they behave as annotations which are not supposed to interact with the grammar (e.g., "From a paper [13], we conclude that" or "As has been proven before [12], we have" or "guided by John Doe [2]"). I have seen both of these standards used and I wouldn't call either one wrong. (But beware of my example "proven before [12]": it means different things depending on the standard). Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 13:20
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    I wouldn't call either one wrong — I would.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 22:45
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    @JeffE care to write an answer explaining the reasons why you would?
    – WBT
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 2:45
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    @binaryfunt Thanks for your helpful answer, +1 to that! The content recently reformatted as the third blockquote is not actually meant to be just additional examples of that citation style, but background information about the document being cited, to head of some of the possible "just word it this other way which is inaccurate/invalid for the content" responses, and in part to respond to O.R.Mapper's request for more information. The sentence after that information tried to make this more explicit.
    – WBT
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 13:45

8 Answers 8


Conceivably the reviewer objected to the non-mention of peoples' names, thinking that should write "guided by J. Doe [12]" or "guided by [Doe12]" or "... by [Doe2011]"... Something in that direction would be my preference, also, since numbers in a bibliography are completely artifactual, not really adding any information. Names are far more informative.

But, still, it's possible that the objection was completely stylistic, so ... "it's just a rule"... which means rational discussion of it is presumably out-of-bounds. Such things seem silly to me, but I am acquainted with people for whom such rules are the only defense against Darkness and Chaos, etc.

I'd not comment on such things in any review/referee-report I wrote, but I can imagine some might. The operational point probably is that if the referee chose to mention it at all, it means they do have that particular fetish, so just comply if you want approval. But don't "pass it on", if you were to ask my opinion... :)

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    I can imagine some might — Hi.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 22:45
  • @JeffE, I have a powerful imagination... :) Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 0:15

Can cited works hold grammatical positions in sentences?

I recall a couple of discussions on this also here on Academia.SE (at least in comments). For many people, the answer to this question is a sound no. However, if you read a number of articles across different fields, you will find that for many other people the answer is, actually, yes. Unfortunately, as far as I know, style guides do not seem to address this specific issue.

Actually, I'm on the yes side for the following reason: different kind of brackets identify different kind of elements: parentheses identify equations, and brackets identify citations. Therefore, the symbol [XX] should be really interpreted, and read, as "reference no. XX", a noun group which can hold a grammatical position. Similarly, the symbol (XX) should be really interpreted, and read, as "equation no. XX".

That said, if the journal style guide requires the authors to write "Eq. (XX)" or "Ref. [XX]" (or similar constructions), then I'd avoid using a citation as a noun. For instance, in this case, I'd reword your example sentence as

We analyzed the data using the Wilmerding method, according to the implementation described in Ref. [12]

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    I think this is the best answer here, specifically because you refer to the reality of published articles across many fields. Scientific writing never had a purpose to show off somebody's stylistic language abilities; it often sacrifices style for brevity and clarity and has evolved with its own rules and conventions. (I was often told, "The official language of science is bad English") You saying the answer is no for many people, due to each person having their stylistic preferences, but also yes for a large number of people and accepted by communities of different fields, is spot-on.
    – penelope
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 12:28

This answer refers exclusively to "atomic" citation references based on numbers or abbreviations, such as [42], [ABC+95], or (M09). My opinion described here does not expand to citation reference styles that do not require a fixed form, but instead integrate naturally into a sentence, such as "Picard and Galen had discovered in 2336 ...", thereby indicating the key information of author names and year necessary to find the appropriate item in the bibliography.

As a further restriction of my claims with respect to Massimo's answer, I would like to point out that my subfield rarely uses numbered equations. If we do, they are explicitly referred to, like other inserted pieces of information, by writing "From Equation 15, we can conclude ...", rather than using the mere equation number like "From (15), we can conclude ...". This may well influence my opinion.

As a bit of a counterbalance to the existing answers, I am going to state my opinion that using a citation reference like a word is extremely bad style.

I would not point it out in a review, as it is too minor, but I definitely rewrite such sentences in papers that I participate in when one of the other authors uses that style, and I ask them to write complete sentences instead.

One issue I see with considering citation references such as [42] as words is that papers that do so apparently never do so consistently. More concretely, a sentence like

We analyzed the data using the Wilmerding method, guided by [12].

is often followed by a sentence such as

As numerous problems have been pointed out related to the basic Wilmerding method [13 - 15], we have used the Thunderbolt Approximation.

So, [12] is a word; it should be read as "Reference 12"? Fine, but then [13 - 15] must be read as "References 13 to 15". Evidently,

As numerous problems have been pointed out related to the basic Wilmerding method References 13 to 15, we have used the Thunderbolt Approximation.

is not a sentence.

Conversely, if citation references are considered as words, each additional reference makes the sentence more convoluted, as additional sentence parts have to be added. In particular, the action of inserting a single reference to provide some evidence for a given statement becomes one of actually changing the respective text. This is simply not necessary if citation references are seen as meta-information super-imposed on the text, without any influence on sentence structure, that can be skipped while following the flow of the text, unless the reader specifically looks for references.

In general, I consider in-text citation references as an artifact from the days when scientific publications were still text printed on paper. We have various of these artifacts, such as papers being nailed down layout-wise on a fixed-size paper format like PDF, with what seems like physical page numbers and fixed-format section numbers, rather than per-document page numbers1 and a semantically nested structure of sections and subsections (that just imposes order and hierarchy, but not superficial things like numbering style). In my opinion, citation references are exactly this - an artifact that, sooner or later, will disappear and be replaced with meta-information embedded in the document, used by viewers to provide on-demand source information (e.g. upon mouse-hovering over the passage of text based on the cited work, which otherwise just contains a subtle visual cue indicating that there is something more embedded there), similar to context-aware editing helper popups found in some code/text editors:

context-aware popup editor options in code editor context-aware popup editor options in text editor

In my opinion, citation references are like these context-aware popups. They are displayed near the text they refer to, but they do not belong to the text flow (and wouldn't be read out when reading the text of the actual document).

One additional possible issue when treating citation references like words is the fact that citation references in some styles just do not look sufficiently like words to be treated as such. One such style is used in another question, and the examples in the question illustrate themselves that citation references in superscript do not look nice as words:

However, in⁴ only a small uncertainty has been introduced ...

This is partly coming back to my aforementioned statements - ideally, the appearance of citation references should not be nailed down by the document, and consequently, citation references should be inserted in a way that will essentially work no matter how citation references end up being styled in the final document.

1 Things are beginning to change, as evidenced by a question here, and also some publishers that give their papers page numbers of the style <issue>:<in-paper number>.

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    "Extremely bad style" conflicts with "is too minor". Other points are valid, though.
    – March Ho
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 22:18
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    @MarchHo: Stylistic issues are still just that. Compared to verifiable mistakes such as in spelling, or issues that actually impede comprehensibility, stylistic issues are a matter of taste to large parts, and therefore too minor to mention in a review. Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 6:46
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    @ChrisH: Thanks, I clarified my text to state that there may still be some visual cue that indicates where to hover, just not necessarily something that looks like it could be part of the text (and of course, not a key that needs to be remembered so it can be found again in a locally separated bibliography). As for the other concern, once again I think that is a non-issue once "papers" are stored with their logical structure rather than their visual appearance. A view-with-hover-info style will happily display references on demand by hovering, while a print-out-style applied to the very ... Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 16:06
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    I could get behind that idea. Iff it was an open, accessible format which supported offline access on all devices. Most attempts to supercede typeset papers appear to be going the other way, e.g. Readcube.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 16:28
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    @O.R.Mapper Next time you edit, I'd suggest fixing the very end: maybe put it in backquotes so you get <issue>:<in-page-number>, or use square brackets instead of angle brackets, or something.
    – David Z
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 17:21

As was mentioned in a comment, the IEEE Editorial Style Manual (p. 5) says

Grammatically, they may be treated as if they were footnote numbers, e.g.,

as shown by Brown [4], [5]; as mentioned earlier [2], [4]–[7], [9]; Smith [4] and Brown and Jones [5]; Wood et al. [7]

or as nouns:

as demonstrated in [3]; according to [4] and [6]–[9].

  • For what it's worth, the excerpt from a styleguide you cite does not answer this question. It states that (by that styleguide), both variants are equally acceptable (without providing a reason for either). Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 14:12
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    @O.R.Mapper I cannot help the OP specifically, seeing as I don't know what their venue style guide says. I can, however, answer the question in the broad extent of IEEE citations, which the OP's resemble. If the OP was meant to follow IEEE, I don't see how this wouldn't answer their question.
    – binaryfunt
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 14:30
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    @O.R.Mapper As OP, I think this is a great answer to the question, and gets a well-deserved Necromancer badge including an upvote from me. Q: Can cited works hold grammatical positions in sentences? This A: For publications where the IEEE style guide applies, unambiguously yes. The answer links to an authoritative source including page number pointer, quotes the relevant portions, and applies formatting markup appropriately.
    – WBT
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 15:11
  • One minor negative aspect to this answer is that the first sentence, recently edited in, isn't generally true in my experience, motivating the posting of this question. IEEE providing clarity on this point in their style guide seems to be more the exception than the pattern. I might say In some cases, this may be answered... instead of This is usually answered... (unless one "usually" publishes with IEEE).
    – WBT
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 15:16
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    @WBT Yeah, I meant that the style guide is usually the place to find a definitive answer to a question like this, although it might not broach the issue. I've decided to just remove that line.
    – binaryfunt
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 15:52

It depends on the stylistic standards of your field. In linguistics, it is standard to use references as nouns, e.g. "X shows that" or "as demonstrated in X", where X refers to some publication. Generally our citations are of the form "Dewey (2011)", "Cheatam & Howe (2005)", but a few journals (all Elsevier, I think) use and require the nameless number system.

  • 4
    Technically X normally refers to an author not a publication, as shown by the fact that the date is put in brackets. "Dewey 2011 was a pivotal study..." would be how an actual publication would be referenced. Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 8:43
  • The brackets are by individual journal fiat. It can be hard to discern an author's ideology, but there are subtle clues like "in Dewey (2011)" which has to refer to the work.
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 16:02
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    There is a huge difference between "Dewey (2011)" and "[12]", I don't see how they are equivalent.
    – terdon
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 12:06

Yes, in at least some venues.
Including a citation in a grammatical position is explicitly given as an example for what you are supposed to do for CHI 2018:

Avoid “As described in our previous work [10], … ” and use instead “As described by [10], …”

  • The example you list, however, is not talking about grammar. It's about anonymization. so the focus of the above juxtaposition is on avoiding "our previous work". Actually, I am quite certain that whoever wrote the above example failed to notice the different grammar. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 14:11
  • @O.R.Mapper I'm not so certain. While I agree the main objective there was anonymization, the suggested means of achieving that objective was putting a citation in a grammatical position. While I don't think the source answers a question about if that's the best way of writing something, that's not the question being asked here. I do think this source answers the question about if that structure is considered fine/OK, at least for that venue and the others which follow its rules.
    – WBT
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 15:03
  • I still suspect the author of that sentence did not notice they changed the way the citation is grammatically embedded into the sentence while dropping the explicit "our". The styleguide for the same conference does not seem to mention any explicit rule, but is consistent in not assigning a grammatical position to citations. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 15:15

I think the issue is plainly linguistic, on the basis that a sentence should be complete without the elements being in brackets.

From that perspective, you cannot use 1 or (Doe et al., 2017) as a subject or object, cause if you remove either of them from your sentence, the sentence will make no sense.

In most cases I came across this type of sentence, it was formulated as

According to Doe et al. [1],


According to Doe et al. (2017),

and I think this is the proper way to have this information.

Copying from Oxford Dictionaries website,

Round brackets (also called parentheses, especially in American English) are mainly used to separate off information that isn’t essential to the meaning of the rest of the sentence. If you removed the bracketed material the sentence would still make perfectly good sense.


Square brackets (also called brackets, especially in American English) are mainly used to enclose words added by someone other than the original writer or speaker, typically in order to clarify the situation:

He [the police officer] can’t prove they did it.

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    Why does the sentence need to be complete without the part in brackets? I can see having that as a rule, but it seems quite arbitrary now that the brackets are no longer a footnote. Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 14:31
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    You added an example of a completely different use of those brackets. Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 18:27
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    If you click on the link, it describes the use of () and [] in English. The important is that the information in brackets is supportive and as such, it cannot be used as object or subject in a sentence. That's what the question is about and that's why the content reviewer was against it. I think it's a very simple reason/rule and I'm not a linguistics researcher to argue whether it is arbitrary or not. I assume that the content reviewer and the journal want the articles to be written in proper english.
    – BioGeo
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 19:53
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    @TobiasKildetoft If there are rules in language, they are beyond "styles", as long as we want or we are required to follow such rules, i.e. write properly. If some disciplines or journals do not mind about proper use of language, then yes, I cannot hope my answer to be correct.
    – BioGeo
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 20:50
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – BioGeo
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 21:59

The short answer (IME, and it is a matter of opinion, including the editors') is no. But you can make it into a grammatical entity with a word or 2.

I'm most used to numerical (especially superscripted) styles¹. I might want to follow the method set out in reference 1, for example, rather than follow the usual method¹. Here's another example of how I used this approach in my thesis:

References in able notes

Otherwise the combination of my reference style and the footnote (tablenote) symbols would have led to table notes like ⁿ ¹²³, or confusion with powers (it's normally easy to avoid putting a reference next to a number, not in tables). I see no reson why this wouldn't adapt to the style in the question: I might want to follow the method set out in reference 2, for example, rather than follow the usual method [2].

¹A Author, "Notes on referencing"

2 B Buthor, "Citations that interrupt reading"

Textual referencing styles are more varied. Jones (2012) developed a method is fine if that's the style you use, as you're discussing Jones and their work. The rammed-together AuthorYear styles for example are harder. I've seen things like [Jones2012] in line. That, treated as a noun, could only refer to a paper, not (logically) an author. So you could follow the method set out in [Jones2012] (though I don't like the brackets in this case). Alternatively, Jones and Smith, in [Jones2012], derived the function from first principles. Some of the other text citation styles may take more work than this.

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