Making the most of bad bibliographic references

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes, you have to make the best of what you have, even if it isn’t great.

In the case of cookery, there’s a legend that Chicken Marengo was created when Napoleon’s cook had to produce a meal out of whatever he had been able to scavenge in the aftermath of the battle of that name; the result is one of the few recipes that combines chicken with crayfish.

In the case of academic life, there’s an all-too-common reality where you are trying to write something, and all you have in the way of references for one section is a stub from Wikipedia, plus an article from a newspaper which claimed in the same issue that Elvis had been sighted piloting a UFO in Spokane.

So, what can you do when you’re faced with this situation? Is there any way of salvaging something from the debris?

The answer is that you can indeed salvage something, and even emerge in a position of strength, provided that you handle it the right way, and that you don’t push your luck.

How you do that is the topic of today’s article.

A dish fit for a future emperor (ingredients not to scale, and without the parsley…)bannerSources for original images are at the end of this article.

First, the bad news. If you don’t have any decent references at all, then you’ve got little option; you’ll need to go out and get some decent references. This article is about what to do if you’re short of good references for just one section.

Now, the good news. If it’s just one section that’s problematic, then you can probably fix it with a few carefully chosen words. The word “probably” is in there because this approach doesn’t guarantee success, any more than having the recipe for a masterpiece of French cuisine will guarantee that the meal you produce will be fit to eat; however, with a bit of luck, and some attention to detail, it greatly improves your chances.

In brief, what you do is the academic equivalent of holding your nose with one hand, while holding the offending horrible reference at arm’s length with the other hand, and thereby demonstrating that you are a proper academic who is showing professional disdain for work that falls far short of your exacting standards.

It’s a long-established approach. Here’s Thucydides the historian, using it two and a half thousand years ago.

For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides; translated by Richard Crawley.

The classic way of using this approach is as follows.

First, demonstrate clearly to the reader that you’re a heavyweight professional. It’s a good idea to demonstrate this as early as possible, so that you get the halo effect working in your favour.

You can do this by, for example, including some references to the advanced critical literature; we’ve blogged about how to do that here.

Then, when you come to the section where you don’t have strong references, you can cite your horrible references by using introductory phrasing such as: “There is a popular belief that…” or: “There have been claims that…”

Ideally, you would then follow this up with a proper, respectable reference by way of contrast, to distance yourself further from the vulgar, erroneous version of events. However, if you don’t have a decent reference, you can simply move on fast to the next section, where you return to respectable references that will get you decent marks.

In case you’re wondering whether the advice above is about cynically manipulating the reader, the answer is that you won’t get away with using this approach unless you have good references to use in juxtaposition with the bad ones.

It’s also a useful approach for some situations that can affect even the best professionals.

Sometimes, for instance, a key fact is so well established that there isn’t a good reference for it, or it’s so well established that citing a reference for it would give the impression that you didn’t know the difference between assertions needing a reference and assertions not needing a reference. If you’re an archaeologist, for instance, you probably wouldn’t want to use a reference saying that the Egyptian pyramids were built by ancient Egyptians (because that would be so obvious that people would wonder why you were saying it) but you might disdainfully quote an ancient aliens claim as a way of visibly distancing yourself from people with interesting hair and even more interesting beliefs…

A related situation is where there are two or more concepts that could easily be confused with each other. For instance, the acronym “NLP” is widely used in academic computing to refer to “Natural Language Processing” but is widely used outside academia to refer to the very different concept of “Neuro-Linguistic Programming”. It’s a courtesy to your readers to make them aware of this type of ambiguity, to avoid confusion; it’s also a good way of salvaging some credibility if you belatedly discover that you’ve been diligently reading papers from the wrong literature.

An example of handling this would be “… X (Smith & Jones, 1976). This is not to be confused with the popular concept of Y (e.g. Dreck & Grot, 2015)”.

So, in summary, you can make good use of a small number of horribly low-quality references by citing them, and showing the reader just how much disdain you have for them. You still have to do the hard work elsewhere in what you’re writing, but this approach can help you when you’re up against a hard deadline and making the best of what you’ve got, or when there’s not much point in trying to track down a solid reference that might not even exist yet.

Notes and links

Banner image original sources:

“Female pair” by Andrei Niemimäki from Turku, Finland – Friends. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

“Italian garlic PDO” by Pivari – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

“Bright red tomato and cross section02” by Taken byfir0002 | 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 – Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons –

“Flickr – cyclonebill – Vagtel-spejlæg” by cyclonebill – Vagtel-spejlæg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

“Austropotamobius pallipes” by David Gerke – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –


You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

We’ve written more about academic insults here:

Overviews of the articles on this blog:



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