Too Few? Too Many? A Dissertation Editor's Tips for Effective Citation Frequency -->

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Too Few? Too Many? A Dissertation Editor's Tips for Effective Citation Frequency

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Effective citation is a pivotal element of scholarly writing and is something that demands ongoing skill building. Properly attributing information sources is important for avoiding academic integrity issues. But, equally as important, it helps you demonstrate your knowledge of the literature in your field as well your chosen citation style (APA, at Walden) to readers.
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Many Walden University doctoral students have a good understanding of key APA citation and reference guidelines by the time they reach the capstone writing stage. However, when editing students’ work for form and style, I often notice that students either do not include citations when they should or they include them when they should not. In my post today, I want to further discuss both scenarios.

Too Few? 
Let me focus first on the absence of necessary citations in capstone documents. I most often see this issue in the problem statement section. In providing a rationale for one’s study, a student asserts that inadequate research has been done in a certain area and that a gap exists in the literature (hence, the need for additional research in the form of the current study).

To persuasively make such a statement, however, one needs to cite relevant studies that have been conducted as well as summarize key findings and knowledge arising from this research. Doing so demonstrates that a student has conducted a thorough literature review and is well-versed in the literature in your field. It also reinforces to a student’s committee members and other readers that she or he has carefully thought out the relevance of the research being undertaken.

But, sometimes, when students state their research problems, they do not include adequate or any substantive evidence to substantiate their informational claims. This is one instance where effective citation can definitely help. While each student’s capstone is unique, I typically recommend using the following format, either in multiple paragraphs or a single one, to show your reader that your claims are indeed supported by the literature. The capstone writer should do the following: 

Step 1: Note areas that have been studied – for instance, with a statement such as “researchers have conducted studies of x (see Author A, 2016; Author B, 2015; Author C, 2012)."

Step 2: Summarize key research findings – for instance, with a statement such as “they have found evidence of y (Author A, 2016; Author B, 2015; Author C, 2012)."

Step 3: Point out significant gaps in knowledge – for instance, with a statement such as “based on my review of the literature, researchers have not adequately studied z.”

Step 4: Then, provide more elaboration about why further research is needed.

This is one example of how the inclusion of citations in one’s writing helps to elicit reader buy-in and establish credibility in the writer.

Too Many?
On the other hand, in editing capstone studies, I have also observed instances in which citations have been unnecessarily or inappropriately included, in my opinion. I most often observe this issue in the methods section of capstone studies, especially when students are describing their research protocols.

Considering the following statement: “I used inductive coding to analyze data for emergent themes (Creswell, 2013).” In this sentence, no citation is needed because no information is being presented from Creswell. The writer is merely reporting on her or his data analysis procedures. If you’d like to learn more about this trap and how to avoid it, check out this clever blog post, Creswell Did Not Write About You, written by my fellow Writing Center dissertation editor, Tim.

Including citations when they are unnecessary can confuse readers and potentially diminish a writer’s credibility, as the Creswell scenario shows. Reading this sentence, I am unclear why Creswell is being cited. As the reader, I reason that the student is trying to indicate that she or he followed Creswell’s protocol, but I am uncertain. And, the uncertainty makes me a bit less confident about the writer’s knowledge. To clarify things, I would recommend that a student either delete this citation or include “see” before the citation (to indicate that Creswell is being used as an example).

Mastering these citation skills can, indeed, be challenging. But effective citation practice is not something that writers are born with. It takes practice. So with sustained effort, learning these skills is definitely doable, in my view.

To help you along the way, Walden University Writing Center offers several asynchronous and synchronous resources focused on APA citation, references, and manuscript style. Our modules and webinars are good places to start.

Tara Kachgal is a dissertation editor in the Walden University Writing Center. She has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and teaches for the School of Government's online MPA@UNC program. She resides in Chapel Hill and, in her spare time, serves as a mentor for her local running store's training program.

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