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Citations Are Not Nouns

  • We should not treat citations as nouns. For example, do not write like these:
    • It was shown in [1] that …
    • For details, see [2].
  • We should acknowledge the authors where appropriate, especially when their work is closely related to the paper. It is different when we talk about a general well-known concept and refer to a text book. In such cases, we need not include the authors’ names. But if we want to say something invented for the first time, it is appropriate to acknowledge the person or the group that did that.
  • Treating citations as nouns is allowed by IEEE. It is a bad style. Many publishers do not cite this way, for example, APA, ACS Harvard, Nature, and Oxford.
  • The presence of citation labels should not affect the flow of the text. The reader should not need to flip to the back of the paper to understand what we are talking about. A good way is to write everything without citations (or make them superscript) and make sure that the text flows well grammatically and syntactically. Then add in citations in the required style.
  • Referencing styles should not affect how we write the main text. If we treat citations as nouns, our text will not make sense when we swap to the Nature or Oxford referencing style where citation labels are superscript. For example, “In 3, a new scheme was introduced …”
  • Academics are split on this matter. Some academics who advocate not treating citations as nouns include
    • John Owens, who quoted Mary-Claire van Leunen: “Brackets are not words. A bracketed number is just a pointer, not a word. Never, ever, use a bracketed number as if it were the name of an author or a work.”
    • Dan Wallach