How specific do references need to be?

Dear Editor;

In going over my old citations, I've been trying to decide how to trim my citations to avoid including unnecessary detail. (You've previously cautioned me about this in some of my citations). I'm trying to define a "focus statement" to help my decide how to address the issue.

Would it be correct to say that the purpose of a reference note is solely to unambiguously define where one obtained the information used, not to actually extract that information?

If so; it might not be necessary to mention a person-of-interest in a reference note, if the reader does not need name to unambiguously locate the information being referenced.

I have a newspaper article that names my uncle and his swimming accomplishments. I have not provided his name in the reference, as one can unambiguously locate the article without it.

(Montréal, Quebec) Gazette, 18 April 1940, p. 16, col. 2, “Ottawa Threat”; digital images, ( : accessed 9 June 2019).

Submitted byEEon Sun, 06/20/2021 - 18:57


For the purpose of a citation, in EE's view, let's turn to EE's preface:

As students, when we were introduced to research principles, we may have been told that identifying sources is important for two reasons. First, we provide “proof” for what we write. Second, we enable others to find what we have used. Both purposes are valid, but they miss the most critical point of all:

We identify our sources—and their strengths and weaknesses—so we can reach the most reliable conclusions.

I do not know of any citation guide that instructs researchers to use citations as a place to "extract information" from the source. We may add certain pieces of information to the citation, if that information is needed to clarify or support the text. But if we are using citations as a place to store our research notes, then we need to reevaluate the research framework in which we are working.

In your newspaper example, if your text speaks of your uncle and his swimming accomplishments, and there is no ambiguity as to why your cited source supports the statements in your text, then you do not need to include your uncle's name in the citation.

Because the title of the newspaper article offers no discernible connection to your uncle or to swimming or aquatic sports, your text might mention his being considered a "threat" to the competition (or whatever the thrust of the article is). Otherwise, readers might wonder whether the wrong article was cited.

This is the same principle we follow when, say, our text references a man's will but the cited source is titled "Deeds, 1750–1754."  Without some "connector" to explain that the will is recorded in the deed book, the cited source might appear to be wrong.

Dear Editor;

Thank you for confirming the principle involved and for your suggestions. As you may have guessed; I tend to include quite a bit about the lives of the people in my family; not just the bare genealogical facts. This gives me ample opportunity to introduce the reference material that is cited.

I can see three clear advantages to avoiding additional verbiage in the citations and to instead establish their relevance within the body of the document:

  • Readers do not need to alternate between the document body and the references to understand the narrative. This could be quite an issue in a document that employs endnotes.
  • A more general reference could be reused for other people who are mentioned or as a general contextual reference. This reduces the number, or the length, of citations.
  • If one eventually decides to publish the document, the inevitable editorial revisions to the citations should not require changes to the body of the document.

Submitted byRobynRon Mon, 06/21/2021 - 02:12

I feel this citation needs some tweaking.

“Ottawa Threat,” Gazette (Montréal, Quebec), 18 April 1940, p. 16, col. 2; digital image, ( : accessed 9 June 2019). Article details information for [whoever] swimming accomplishments.