A Cite for Sore Eyes

Recently, in class, I used a quote from Dorothy Parker to illustrate linguistic planning, viz. ``I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.'' It raised a collective grin, and may even be remembered beyond the classroom -- at least until the exam.

An attentive student asked me for the reference. Ho hum. I couldn't find one. It seems that the particular expression has been attributed to more than one author. Some say WC Fields. Some say Randy Hanzlick. Some say Tom Waits. I checked with Tom Waits, and he says he read it on a bathroom wall. For a nano-second, I was filled with the requisite horror and shame that befits a person in my position. Then I got to thinking about it. What does it matter whether you quote the original source?  

What's important? That you quote the source or a source? In this case, I suspect that linking the example with Tom Waits would raise the example to a level of hip that Randy Hanzlick could not command in a group of 25 students from a predominantly Science/Social Science background, rendering Mr. Waits my retrospective source of choice for next time.

I heartily endorse the notion that, if one wishes to tell an audience what one knows, one should generally clarify how one knows. New insights should grace old wisdom with more than a passing nod. Being published reflects authority accorded to the writer by the process of peer review. However, for citations, it is sometimes Old Fame rather than Old Wisdom in whose direction we nod. I have seen the original article of the Four-parameter Model of Glottal Flow referred to by writers who, of their own admission, see integration as a Dutch social requirement rather than a mathematical operation. It is not only in Mr. Waits' case that being cited reflects author prominence.

But enough obscure references to the esoteric study of Voice Source Analysis! A very senior colleague in another discipline, (read: Old Fame and Old Wisdom) mentioned to me that he regularly gets requests from substantially less senior colleagues to cite their work in his publications. Being of a kind heart, my worthy colleague sees no reason to decline, as long as the requested citation will provide interesting reading around the topic of his publications.  After all, the future of the less senior colleagues rather hangs on the citation index. Thus, being cited also reflects good connections and job prospects.

Some time ago, the same senior colleague was requested to publish an original and thought-provoking idea by a journal for the wider audience. My colleague duly wrote it up, citing, as one of his sources, the program that he had written for making the calculations. That citation pointed to the program, which he had made available to interested parties at a university website. The reference was rejected as being not an original source.  Being cited, it seems, reflects something other than being useful to the reader.

What, then, is to be written in the margin of a draft paper where, without a screed of evidence, a student writes that children take men more seriously than women? Should I scribble ref!!!, indicating that he should base his thoughts on evidence other than Paris Hilton video clips?  Well, as long as the video clips' reference is from someone prominent, with good connections, won't that be alright? -- and maybe Paris will find a good job now.