Sunday, October 24, 2021

Why Include References in this Blog?

I've been writing this blog weekly since 2013, describing places or plants, or botanical ideas. Most weeks I include references. Reading other people's blogs as I worked on English ivy, I noted, again, that few of them include references. So why do I? Why go to that extra work? 

What the references do is to show you, the reader, where I got my material. It is an academic thing, of course. But knowledge is built on knowledge. I have first-hand observations, but I get a lot of information from other people. In academia, it is important to give those people credit. Here on the internet, manners are different, but the core reason for including references is to let readers know where the information came from remains critical. 

grapes and grapevine
grapevine, as in "I heard it through the grapevine"

If the first reason for listing references is to give credit where credit is due, the second is to be transparent about where the facts and ideas came from. That's the one I'm going to talk about.

The idea is that I give you enough information in the list of references to find and read those sources for yourself. If you were writing your own blog--we'll use English ivy as the example--on English ivy, you would be saved some work by reading the works in my reference list. If they were all websites, maybe a search on English ivy would find them quickly, but even then, internet searches are not all equal; I searched on English ivy; Hedera helix; English ivy uses; Hedera helix poison; English ivy poison; English ivy allergy...lots of combinations. You'd be a while finding all the same websites. For the print material, searching is harder, so the titles are even more useful.

references in blog on English ivy
references from my blog on English ivy biology

But almost no one reading the blog will write their own essay on English ivy. What does the reference list do for everyone else? It is a way to check whether you should believe what I wrote. Showing the references I used is the first level of transparency; they establish who I consulted and that what I wrote wasn't all made up by me. The list says I'm willing that you see where I got what I wrote. Surely that builds confidence.

bookshelf of foraging books
reference books on edible wild plants (foraging)

Acknowledging that you can find and read my sources, you can do a much quicker evaluation by considering who I referred to. Was it a government websites or an occasional blog by someone unknown to you? Some individual blogs are wonderfully accurate, but if all the references provided are personal blogs, you might want to look at one or two of those to see what you think of them. I gave you a live link so you can do that easily. I wonder sometimes if I am getting bad information from reference-less websites. It is possible. In general, sites with references, sites with a government or other well-known and respected author, are easier to trust without in-depth investigation than personal websites or local blogs.  

A second thing you can check is the date of the references. Science and society move forward, in complex ways. New evidence of plant domestication is found; plants are renamed; the climate where plants grow shifts, to name some of the changes relevant to this blog. Some books from 1950 are classics, but even if they were absolutely terrific when published, they should be checked against 2021 for use of, say, plant names. If the references are all decades old, there should be some other references that are quite recent, so that something important isn't missed. Online sources are sloppy about giving dates, but most of them are relatively recent...for now. 

In summary, "I include references so you can check my statements". If you want to. And evaluate the quality and recentness of the information I drew on. 

One of my goals with this blog was to provide accurate information online. The quality of the information you easily google has improved over the last decade, and there are many solid "plant blogs" out there. But much sloppy writing, too. 

bookshelf , plant books
reference bookshelf

I'm not planning to stop writing this blog any time soon. I have too much fun learning about each plant. I still find plants with confusing common names (rabbitbrush is the same as chamisa; there are three different genera called coneflowers) and internet writers who didn't seem to realize that. I still find historical names that, when I look up the dates, I can't find any (Guttierrez; Frangipani), and plant stories where something doesn't make sense (English ivy described as having yellow fruits; sandlily flowers are mostly underground, how are seeds dispersed?). I don't solve all those mysteries, but I can bring attention to them.

Plumeria, frangipani
Plumeria, frangipani

Field and lab biologists would not call what I do, writing this blog, research. Research in those fields is done with experimental manipulations or direct observations of plants, carefully controlled. Academia does include reviews, where an author critically evaluates a relately small topic. That is where at least some of my blogs fall, drawing together the published literature, informed by my training and experience, to describe the topic as accurately as I can. And, since accuracy is the goal, the transparency of including the references is essential. Expect the references to continue as well as the blogs.

shelf of books
more books on plants

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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  1. Dear Wandering Botanist,

    Well said!!

    It is important to include - and continue to include - one's sources.

    All the best with the work.

    Stay safe,

    Nigel Chaffey
    [aka Mr Plant Cuttings, blogger at Botany One:]

  2. I totally agree -- with Kathy and with Nigel. Thanks for this discussion, and for your references. (Btw, I also cite my sources. )

  3. The Society of Editors was discussing trends in referencing in the science editors forum yesterday.
    A timely blog, thank you.

  4. Thank you. With references I can explore other material and may glean different info than what the writer has done. Cross referencing is also important. I'm always suprised at how much wikipedua has for references but how many that profess to be scholars provide nothing. It gets harder and harder to decipher knowledge from opinion.