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Scholarly Citation and the Circle of (Authorial) Life
Kurt Schick
"Nearly all research builds on previous research. Researchers commonly begin a project by studying past work in the area and deriving relevant information and ideas from their predecessors. This process is largely responsible for the continual expansion of human knowledge. In presenting their work, researchers generously acknowledge their debts to predecessors by carefully documenting each source, so that earlier contributions receive appropriate credit" (Gibaldi 104).
      MLA's citation guidance demonstrates that the laws of inertia aren't suspended at the campus gates. As elsewhere, institutionalized practices often seem inconsistent with our current best theoretical understandings. For example, outmoded conceptions of authorship persist in our current system of scholarly citations. In effect, we continue to prescribe disciplinary practices that our theories no longer describe. Old habits of publication and citation evidence our dilemmas with respect to authorship, proprietorship, intellectual autonomy, and intertextuality. Citation systematically perpetuates the illusion of autonomous authorship by obscuring the collaborative reality of scholarly writing.

       Publication establishes us as scholars; our professional success depends upon making "significant, original contributions" to our discipline. Ostensibly, our work is validated as "original" by journal referees who are themselves established authorities in the field. This is not (necessarily) to say that we still cling to a Romantic notion that we actually create truly "new" ideas. In theory, many of us would go no further than to claim that we've reordered old ideas or taken an innovative approach to age-old problems. On the surface, then, citation practices seem to acknowledge intertextual "collaboration." However, citation still privileges references to "authors," not to texts.

      In presenting and developing our own "new" arguments, our scholastic system obliges us to acknowledge those scholar-authors whose "originary" contributions enabled our own work. But in practice, we do not list every "author" who made our own work possible. MLA's doctrine of "works cited" only applies to sources that we use directly, ignoring all the other works that contributed to our "authorship." Not only do we generally bury many of the authors who made our sources' work possible, we also neglect works (that is, authors) "consulted" but not directly cited in our text.

      If publication signifies legitimate authority within our discourse community, then each citation signals the birth of a text as an "originary" source itself. Henceforth, our ideas-in-print bear our name. In this way, authority replicates itself through publication and citation. To be published is to become an author-referred-to in future works. In practice, citation is the authorial circle of life: new generations of scholar-authors are born at the "ultimate sacrifice" of those who went before.

Work Cited

Joseph Gibaldi, ed. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 4th ed. New York: MLA, 1995

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