Citation granularity

Continuing the discussion from If you were independently wealthy and had exemplar programming and design skills:

I guess this varies by discipline, but I wouldn’t trust a citation to a single sentence, or even page. The context of the rest of the article (or book) provides supporting evidence for the thought being cited. Perhaps more importantly, it might not provide support.
For instance, I could cite Wakefield, Andrew. 1998…sentence X, and state that MMR vaccine has been shown to cause neuropsychiatric dysfunction (autism spectrum disorder), the relevant sentence below:

We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation.

Without the context of the rest of the questionable (and now retracted) paper, people would be inclined to trust my citation without verifying with their own thought processes and knowledge.


Thanks for forking this chat! I was tempted to dive in on the other thread but held off because it was tangential. Didn’t think to start a new conversation…

I’m on the same page. Personally I love APA citing. I use page numbers and even paragraph-specific citations when it’s called for, but it’s not always called for.

“JohnAtl’s (2020) project illustrates that forking threads can be an effective means of facilitating focused conversation.”

No line or page citation is warranted here—the emergent project is the evidence, taken as a whole.

It probably is disciplinary, though. I imagine it depends on how finely your discipline needs to mince theory and meaning from specific concepts.


I might distinguish two cases seemingly on opposing poles.

One is for internal consumption. There, I might wish for the citation to go only to one point in the source with an understanding that a) I will add my own context notes (akin perhaps I guess to applying Zettlekasten) and b) I want to go directly to the point without being distracted by its own surroundings. It is the ability to see this: “go directly to Mt. Katahdin” rather than to have to re-read this: “go to the US, go to the Appalachian Trail, and find its ‘starting’ point”.

The other pole is, as you note, using citations for external publications. There, I certainly must provide a citation to the full document even as I may extract the idea from only a single point from that full document. With this case, the danger in my mind comes from relying solely on one’s internal notes as the best sense of what to publish about the context for the point being referenced.

So, by example from own case, had I made an internal note that Mt. Katahdin was the “starting point of the Appalachian Trail” yet put this Website as a citation source on that same statement when I published it, I could rightfully be expected to be barred from ever entering the state of GA again. Following on this silly but perhaps useful analogy, in some worlds that rely on public documentation, being wrong about context even to small or inadvertent extent may lead to a permanent black mark within a specific community of followers.

For the record, I would not consider being barred from GA as a major black mark since I prefer ME anyway, but the ban would create some havoc for me to visit my sister and wife’s relatives in the Atlanta area. So, I’m always careful to report publicly that Mt. Katahdin is the higher and more noble of the two points on the Appalachian trail :slight_smile:.



That’s a great example. I’m in a subfield of Political Science that’s in many ways closer to the Humanities than to many of the other Social Sciences. I generally use either Chicago author-date or American Political Science Association (APSA) format (there may be stylistic differences between the two, but as far as citations are concerned, I’ve never noticed a clear difference).

If I were referring to John’s entire work in general terms, I’d cite precisely as above. But if I wanted to use a particular point you’d made to support my argument, or if you’d written a text of political philosophy and I was arguing for a specific interpretation of it, a page number would be in order so readers could find the relevant part of the work: “As ryanjamurphy claims (2020, 12), the appropriateness of a page number often depends on context and intent.”

Either way, of course, the full work gets a works cited entry.