Monday, August 8, 2011

Discussion: Are you a citation stickler?

Since I finished Dance With Dragons, I've been in a fiction slump.  I just can't seem to get excited about any fiction right now, so I've been reading a lot of non-fiction.  Today on my way to work I was thinking about how one of my most important standards in judging non-fiction is related to citations.  I'm not sure if it's the English major in me or the librarian or if I'm just a stickler for proof, but one of my major pet peeves is non-fiction that isn't well-cited.

The worst to me is when an author cites statistics and then doesn't back them up with any citation.  "X number of women are abused every year" or "X percentage of people claim to have faith in the power of prayer" with no citation about where your statistics are coming means absolutely nothing to me.  And I hate to say it, but one of the sub-genres of non-fiction that I think is the worst about this is Christian non-fiction.  I've read so many excellent Christian books that say "A recent Barna survey shows X".  And then NOTHING.  No citation, no further description of the survey, no proof that what they are saying is in any way backed up by fact.  And it drives me crazy!

I'm ok with anecdotal evidence being used in non-fiction, I really am, as long as it is being presented as anecdotal evidence.  And I'm less obsessive about it in works that aren't intended to be academic.  But I feel like more and more I'm seeing popular non-fiction with absolutely no citations.  And here's one last thought - maybe I want to read more on the subject.  If you cite an interesting study, maybe I, as the reader would like to look that study up and read it myself.  The same goes for quotes: if you're going to quote CS Lewis, tell me where that quote came from, don't just stick it in and say someone said it.  I want to follow up on where they said it!  So let's discuss:

How do you feel about the use of citations in non-fiction?  Do you prefer books where authors write in a more anecdotal fashion, or are you more concerned with facts?  Does it stick out to you when authors use statistics or quote people and don't cite their sources?


  1. While I absolutely hate having to use citations in essays myself (I always screw them up even when I follow directions!), I hate even more when I read a piece of nonfiction that has no citations. I'm totally with you on this one. If I'm reading a nonfiction book and the author mentions something that really interests me, I want to be able to look at the citation and find the source that she used. I'm reading a really great nonfiction book right now that uses lots of citations and it makes me happy :)

  2. I was so impressed when I read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, which is a pretty unbelievable story taken on its face, by the multitude of footnotes in the back of the book telling where each bit of supporting information for the stories in the book came from. Quite well done.

  3. What Kelly said. (And now I'm wondering what she's reading! :)

  4. I'm currently in my last year of an MLIS program... so I've become obsessed with citations. If a nonfiction doesn't have them and isn't a memoir, I knock off some stars from my rating.

  5. I agree -- citations all the way! This is especially important if the writer is using their statistics or the conclusion of a study to make a point, or as some sort of justification or backup for a claim they're making.

    If they aren't confident enough in that study or those statistics to allow people to go and look at them and double check their accuracy or relevance -- then their own claim or conclusion immediately lacks validity. It's science all the way -- either the evidence can be looked at and shown to support your conclusion, or your conclusion doesn't stand.