Struggling with Citation Paralysis

In research and formal writing, you need to cite your sources. Every important claim you make, if not original research, needs to be backed up by a reliable reference. I find this can make writing tricky.


At what point can you assume knowledge? When something has been around long enough that it’s accepted as fact (especially trickier in philosophical disciplines), how long can we assume a fact before I no longer need to back it up?

How much do I support basic arguments? If I’m writing a paper to do with computer security, I assume my audience knows enough that I don’t need to pad my work out with references supporting the argument that “computer security is important” or “there are a lot of security bugs these days”. But should I be more rigorous in my writing and find proof for this?

Where did I really learn something? Sorting out what I know and where I learned it from starts to get muddled. I can use tools like Zotero to manage a library of references but even then, knowing which of myriad papers led to me learning one particular fact is still a pain.

Does anyone care? Anecdotally, the single part of an original research paper (as opposed to a review) I am most interested in is often the evaluation / conclusion section. I am more interested in if whatever was built was useful or not, and why. Following that, the setup of a study or the implementation. But these sections often have few references. Is that how people treat my work? What value does a citation have if no one is there to read it?

Can I back up my intuition? Every now and then I find myself wanting to write something that I believe on an intuitive level. But then I feel compelled to look it up to see if anyone has empirically proved it one way or the other. Then I get distracted or give up writing that line of reason altogether.

Is this idea up to date? I find myself referring to old papers, and start to wonder if maybe the author, or even the wider research group, has more recent publications that expand or change the findings of an earlier work. How much of a responsibility to keep my references up to date do I have?


All of these issues and more sometimes leave me struggling to write anything, because I never know if I’m presenting my argument accurately and responsibly.

I’m not sure if this is a term that is formally recognised anywhere, but Citation Paralysis[1] seems a fitting title.

References

[1] “Citation Paralysis”, Joseph Reagle, Published: Wed 11 February 2004, Accessed July 2022, https://reagle.org/joseph/pelican/praxis/citation-paralysis.html

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