Don’t Get Mud on Your Face! Citing Research in Discussions

Clara mud on face 2

Lots of us in the dog community read journal articles and scholarly books to learn more about the science behind behavior, even if our academic credentials lie elsewhere. And sooner or later we want to share what we’ve learned, out of the goodness of our hearts (grin), or more likely to try to win an argument persuade someone of our position.

Some say you shouldn’t even cite research if you don’t have credentials in that field. I think that’s true to some extent, but I also think it is beneficial to read and try to assess research even if you don’t have those credentials. Delving into scholarly journals isn’t always easy, but it’s one of the best ways to expand your knowledge and learn about the dialectic nature of science. But you have to keep front and center in your mind that if you are reading about a discipline that you don’t have academic expertise in, you are at a huge disadvantage compared to the people who have a longstanding background in that area. 

One of the first rules of citing research is that you must understand the context, both for your own benefit and to save your ass from embarrassment. And if you don’t know much of the context, you’d be well advised to start studying.

Let’s say you run across a quote that refers to some research. It supports a position that might be a little controversial or a minority view, but you are excited since you hold that view yourself. You are delighted and ready to quote it, both to impress your friends and show the other camp a thing or two. What should you do?

As someone whose credentials are in fields other than psychology or animal behavior, here are some guidelines I have developed.

What to Do Before You Quote the Article

Cherry picking is a tempting rhetorical fallacy
Cherry picking is a rhetorical fallacy
  1. Find the original source. If you read about the study in Newsweek or The New Yorker, get the author’s name and track down the original research article. An editorial mention is not peer-reviewed research. You may have to pay for the original piece or order it through a library if you don’t have university access. Another option is to send an email to the author. You’d be surprised how many times they’ll just send it to you. Be sure and thank them politely!
  2. Read the article. The first time, don’t worry too much about all the stuff you don’t understand. Try to forge ahead and get a sense of the whole thing.
  3. Read the article again.
  4. Study the charts and graphics. What are they measuring? What’s on the x-axis and what’s on the y-axis of the charts? What statistical methods did they use?
  5. Now look up the terms you don’t understand. Give yourself a crash course if you need to.
  6. If there are still big sections that you don’t get, consult an expert in the field if you can.
  7. Read the article again. Are you beginning to understand it?
  8. If not, and if you have no way of doing so, stop right there. Don’t bother to quote it. If you think you understand it moderately well, proceed.
  9. Find the quote that got you started in the first place.
  10. Study the part in the article just before it. How was the experiment or problem set up?
  11. Study the part just after it. Did they qualify the statement at all? If so, you are ethically bound to include that part if you plan to quote the study. “The new XYZ method works 95% of the time (YAY!), but only with orphaned voles raised with chipmunks and no other rodents (oh).
  12. Study the results section and the discussion section. These sections are where the authors summarize their results and make the case for their findings. But they are also bound to announce the limitations, and we should be just as attentive to those.
  13. Think hard about applicability. If it is about behavior, are there big behavioral differences between the subject species and the one you want to apply it to? Is one a prey animal and another a predator? Have the researchers done something spectacular in the controlled condition of the lab that can’t possibly be replicated in real life? Or conversely, have they found a problem that rarely shows up in the real world because of the ways that good trainers know how to help animals generalize and practice behaviors? Tread carefully. Think it through. You’ll look silly if you announce a problem that real world experts have been aware of for ages and already know how to avoid.
  14. Find out how many times the article has been cited. Google Scholar will give you a rough idea. If there are few citations it generally means the work made very few ripples in the scientific world (usually a bad sign) unless it is brand new. If it has lots, keep that in mind for # 18.
  15. Start reading the citations. Did they show further research that replicated the results? Or did they yield different results and argue against the first conclusion? Sometimes you can tell from just the abstracts, but sometimes you’ll need to get the full text of those articles too. You may run across a review article of the whole topic. Read it!
  16. Take note of the date of the article. If it was from 1975 and the thread of research continues through 1980, 1983, 1988, and 1992, you’d better read to the end. You’ll either bolster your case or save yourself some embarrassment.
  17. Find a ranking for the journal that published the article. Here’s a journal-ranking site.  Collection Development Librarians can also help you assess the comparative merit and ranking of journals and academic publishers. This is another area where you may save yourself some embarrassment. If the ranking is abysmal and the only other publications citing the article are from the same journal–you have a problem. And be careful about the open source “pay and publish” journals; they require even more careful assessment. Some are responsible. Others not so much.
  18. Search through the citations and find the major opponents of the work if there are any. Get the cheerleader out of your head and address the article critically. What do the opponents of the work say? What are the opposing hypotheses and results? Do they make sense? How many citations do they have? (Being heavily cited only shows that people paid attention to the article. A good start. But it might be because a bunch of future studies demolished the findings.)

Take a deep breath. Does your quote have merit? Is it a fair claim, given what else you have learned? Is it from a good source? Has it stood the test of time? Does it apply to your own topic? If so, go for it. Write your post, make your claim, but qualify it appropriately. Cite your source and be careful about Fair Use guidelines: give complete credit so that anybody could go find the very article and quote you are citing, but don’t quote huge chunks.

It's usually safe to quote Chance
What does Chance say?

What To Expect Afterwards

Your friends will be proud of you. People who disagree may be irritated or outraged. But here is what to be ready for. There are virtually always people with better knowledge and credentials than you in a given field.  If you are already in the hierarchy of academia, you are keenly aware of this.

So, those people may have something to say about what you wrote. Here are the main possible reactions:

  1. They address you with criticism of your piece from the benefit of their broader knowledge. They may ask if you considered Joe Schmoe’s experiment from 2004. They may advise you that you made a beginner’s error and you forgot to account for the “Verporeg Effect.” They may tell you that you really need to start over because of the discrepancy between the metrics being used in the different studies. Make no mistake: This is a GREAT response to get from experts. Even if you personally feel ripped to shreds and devastated, get ahold of yourself. They took you seriously enough to make suggestions. They took time out of their day. Thank them (publicly if their critique was public) and go do as they suggested.
  2. They argue in opposition to your piece. Now you have lots more work to do. They have an advantage. They know the field. They are probably right. But you can make lemonade. Go study their points. You wanted to learn about this, right? Now you have a chance to learn some more. This is still hard on the ego, but again, you got taken at least somewhat seriously, and you have an opportunity to learn. And if/when you find that they are probably right, be gracious.
  3. But the worst: they ignore it. They took a look and decided that gracing it with a response would be a complete waste of their time. So you can either puff up your ego and decide that no one recognizes your genius, or go back on your own and study some more. Maybe you are that lone polymath who has connected the dots between some interdisciplinary stuff and people will recognize your genius later. More likely, you were just out of your depth. The people who make radical, startling discoveries are usually immersed in the field in which they make the discovery, or a closely related one.

But hey. You did your best. You probably learned a lot. Whatever the response to your claim, you must forever be ready to delve more deeply if someone comes up with a well-supported opposing point of view. Be a good sport. That’s how science works.

And by the way: I write from experience. I’ve made a variety of mistakes in citing resources and making claims. I thank the people who kindly helped me improve my understanding and make corrections.


Coming Up:

Photo credits: Clara with mud on face and Summer “reading,” Eileen Anderson. Cherries, Wikimedia Commons. The circle and slash added by Eileen Anderson. 

20 thoughts on “Don’t Get Mud on Your Face! Citing Research in Discussions

  1. Yup, it’s hard work but well worth it. Being well informed is a life long journey. I’m a little scared myself, so I think I just won’t quote or reference for while LOL

  2. This needed to be said. We are a profession rooted in science and we need to realize that when we refer to that science, there are people in our own field, including the veterinarians and behaviorists with whom we work or share clients, assessing our credibility as informed practitioners.

  3. This needs to be said and repeated many, many times. The act of finding a study or two, is not the same as understanding both sides and the analysis. It’s not proof.
    Quotations are just sound bites.
    It is so easy to fool people into thinking that a citation has merit. Very important to dig deeper. It’s not about distrust. Well done studies are a piece of the picture. Extrapolating an abstract title is rather dishonest IMO. Sometimes people just make mistakes.
    Particularly appreciate the links to checking the reputation of journals. Very handy. Good bookmark to have.

    1. Thanks!

      You’re exactly right that it’s not about distrust. I know I’ve heard you say, and I have witnessed too, that the great researchers welcome good questions and challenging discourse. It makes their work stronger.

      There are probably some more ways to assess journals online as well; hope people will let me know if they know some good ones. I had the privilege of working for a collection development librarian who had his own statistical system (back in the 90s) for ranking journals and publishers. I know that even now, university librarians are often great sources for checking quality.

  4. Excellent, article – I am guilty of quite a few of the things you mention – especially the wanting to win the argument 🙂 Maybe it’s an Eileen thing

  5. What a great post! I wish everyone who uses the internet would read this–and follow the advice you offer. (And, for the record, my professional background is in education, training, and nonfiction publishing.) A+ to Eileen!

  6. I wish that this were the norm. My biggest moment of disgust was when reading an article authored and published by students of a prestigious journalism school in the States and realizing that they hadn’t bothered to read the original articles. They were spouting a party line that had grossly mis-interpreted the original research. My own crusade to present a realistic picture mainly falls on deaf ears. But I persist. And so glad to have another on board doing the same. Keep up the excellent work!
    Jarah sends kisses.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m flattered, coming from you! Gosh, you must be confronted with this all the time. It’s kind of thankless, trying to get to the bottom of things, isn’t it. People think it is hostility or an ego trip. Smooches back to Jarah!

  7. This is such great advice and should be required reading for all college introduction classes. Your information was clear and explanatory. Thank you.

    1. Zandra, thank you very much! Be sure and check out The Science Dog’s post that I linked to at the bottom as well, which includes discussion of the evidence pyramid and uses a case study as an example. Thanks again! You are very kind.

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