Recipe of a good reference list: Ingredients for PhD success

The doctoral researcher invites to the table the scholars she would like to join her for a conversation over the evening meal. … As host to this party, she makes space for the guests to talk about their work, but in relation to her own work. ~ Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision

Who's coming to dinner? by @debsnet

Who’s coming to dinner?

The reference list of a doctoral thesis is the summary of years of reading and developing ways to critically and respectfully talk about reading in an academic voice. It’s also a list of the ingredients of the thesis, of what was collected and selected from which to create our work.

With over 300 references, my PhD thesis reference list runs to 19 pages and almost 8000 words. As I (check and check and check and) consider that list, I ponder what makes a ‘good’ reference list.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, in their book Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision, talk about using literatures to ‘establish the territory’ or ‘assemble the dinner party guests’. In their dinner party metaphor, which they attribute originally to John Smyth, they discuss the choosing of what literature to include as hosting a dinner party, in which the thesis writer invites to the table those scholars with which their work engages. This gets the candidate to think about what academic conversation/s their thesis inserts itself into, and with which scholarly groups they belong.

I have also read and heard that examiners sometimes read the thesis from the back (urban PhD legend or real deal?). That is, they flick straight to the references, then perhaps to the introduction, the conclusion, then … the findings? Who knows?

Tara Brabazon, for instance, in her 2010 article in the Times, writes:

Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.

The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located. …

If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.

If my reference list was the first thing my examiners looked at I wonder what they would be looking for or what they might think. If I’m being judged on the calibre of my sources, I wonder how my reference list reflects the quality of my scholarship.

I wonder about the ratio of old and new references. My list includes some of the godfathers and matriarchs of the areas of my research; the early works. But when it comes to texts cited from the 1990s, will the reader be wondering why I’m citing not-foundational-but-not-recent texts? Do these texts help to show that I know the field or do they call the relevancy of my list into question? I have also included recent references, including a number published this year. I’m hoping that this shows that my work draws on the very newest thinking in my field. So, I’m hopeful that this combination of old/foundational, middle (some of which are seminal texts for their field), and brand-spanking-new will create a portrait of literatures well canvassed. As Pat Thomson notes in this blog post, examiners know the field, and so will know ‘the originals’. It’s the doctoral candidate’s job to show that they know where their field came from, as well as where it is now.

I have also been thinking about the kinds of texts expected to make up the doctoral reference list. My Voxer doctoral group has thrown up the question about whether blogs and social media can be included in the reference list of a dissertation. My own understanding is that they can be – each style has guidelines for how to cite blog posts and tweets – but that the accepted norm is that a reference list is made up of academic texts, articles from peer-reviewed journals, a few doctoral dissertations and some reports from large organisations. The doctoral dissertations give me hope that mine may get cited on day too! While I’ve seen blogs and tweets used as data, I don’t see them as being considered appropriate references in most PhD theses, unless that medium is central to the field. I haven’t cited any in my own thesis.

Both Pat Thomson and Tara Brabazon mentioned the perils of sloppy or lazy scholarship, which can be revealed through an inaccurate or incomplete (according to the reader) reference list. How is the candidate to know what is enough and when is enough? I am in my final revisions, planning to submit within a month, and still I am reading and inserting citations and references! A recent post on the Thesis Whisperer blog talked about academic FOMO (fear of missing out). I have reading FOMO: the overwhelming fear that if I don’t keep reading, I will miss a seminal paper or a text of importance to my work. And as my thesis uses a bricolaged methodology (different traditions woven together), as well as three phenomena, plus some important contextual factors, there’s plenty to know and plenty to read.

So how, to use Kamler and Thomson’s metaphor, do I know when I’ve invited enough people to my dinner party? Or if they are the right guests?

I found that I started relaxing about the scope of my reference list when I began seeing the same names appearing and reappearing in the texts I was reading. ‘Oh yes,’ I could finally say, ‘I’m familiar with the key names cited here; reading this hasn’t led me to hunt down ten new references.’ But I’m pretty sure I’ll know that the reference-list-litmus-test will only be finished when I press ‘print’ on the final copy.


8 thoughts on “Recipe of a good reference list: Ingredients for PhD success

  1. Interesting to see how you’re analysing your own bibliography. Anyone would think you’re on the verge of gaining a high-level research qualification! I think your instinct for saturation is sound. As with everything doctoral, everyone approaches this slightly differently. Being cognizant of the gender imbalance in academia, and a feminist, I kept track of the gender balance in my doctoral references to ensure that I was being influenced by women’s scholarship as much as men’s. (Apologies to anyone reading who recognises the fluidity of gender – I do too, but the binary was all I had to work with ten years ago.) I didn’t highlight my approach for my examiners, and only mentioned it in passing to my supervisors; I was doing it for my own satisfaction. So this is not to say that anyone else should do the same, only that it felt very important for me to include women fully at my table. And this was as much because I wanted to ensure that I engaged with their work, rather than unwittingly engaging only or mostly with men’s work (however good that might be), as because I wanted to demonstrate that they engaged with mine.


  2. thanks for sharing this. 🙂 while I am still doing my masters, I find this helpful and applicable.

    btw, I included this post in my blog rolls for future reference.



  3. I’m trying to integrate several different literatures, across different academic disciplines, with different histories (Yay! for interdisciplinary research). I am less worried at the moment about examiners than I am about finding new supervisor(s) (Yay! for interdisciplinary research).

    I used to turn to my supervisor(s) for advice on what would be ‘enough’ and who to include, but I soon realised I couldn’t satisfy everyone/anyone without having an overloaded in tray. My most recent draft chapter of 10,000 words had more than 300 references on its own. The first recommendation of every reviewer in discipline was to trim down my citations. (Those outside were greedy for more of their own. *sigh*)

    I have had to go back to the ‘metric’ of ‘enough to support your claims’. I draw on fewer, but richer sources to support my theoretical/methodological stance, and more, and more specific for my specific argument or my ‘data’ (as a legal and socio-technical researcher, my ‘data’ is mostly existing literature, reports, and reporting). Whenever I have to delve into specific of a technological artifact or a piece of policy or legal writing, referencing gets denser again.

    I doubt I’m getting out of this alive with less than many hundreds of references across 4-5 disciplines. Probably more like 1,000 o.O


  4. Pingback: Days until thesis submission | the édu flâneuse

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