Part 2: The Interpretative Approach to Citation Indexing


The second, and again, fragmented approach to citation indexing is best described as the interpretative approach which relies on the idea of citation as a communicative act that forms a relationship between texts. Firstly, May (1967: 890) suggests that citations are ‘deviants’ and are partly informed by the ‘scientific, political and personal motivations’ of the user. This has lead to citation indexing being viewed as a social science with the emphasis on communication between texts and also between authors. Mitroff (1972) questioned the normative approach in this way by suggesting that referencing relies on subjective behavior in the methods scientists use to cite. What this means, according to Gilbert and Mulkay (1982) is that citation behavior is context dependent. The problem with this approach was best summarized by Blackwell and Kochtanek (1981) who point out that while citation indexing is a communicable relationship involving two texts, it does not make it explicitly clear what the nature of the relationship actually is. This leads to the inclusion of psychological analysis in the debate. Harter, Nisonger and Weng (1993) suggest that there is psychological validity to citation usage in that they don’t always retain a clear topical relevance. However, little consensus was reached regarding what the texts are actually saying to each other given the rather slippery application of terms like ‘subjective’ and ‘context-based’.

Once again, as long as a fragmented, rather than holistic approach, is taken to the subject the real value of citation indexing, if any at all, will not be realized. For example, Stanely Fish (1989, 164) argues from a reader-response perspective that “the convention is a way of acknowledging that we are involved in a community activity in which the value of one’s work is directly related to the work that has been done by others; that is, in this profession you earn the right to say something because it has not been said by anyone else, or because while it has been said, its implications have not been spelled out.” However, Fish’s explanation only assesses the citation process through an insular relationship between two texts rather assessing qualitatively ‘why’ a specific cited text is valuable. His approach still falls victim to the idea expressed by Voos and Dagaev (1976) that citations function on the assumption that they have and equivalent value. In this sense, citations fail to distinguish between degrees of importance between differently weighted texts. This has lead to Czarniawska-Joerges’ (1998, 63) supposition that citations act as a “trace of conversations between texts”. In this sense, Merton’s (1977, 84) early argument that citations are too cognitively complex to be accurate and comprehensive in their citation behavior still holds true. However, this does not prevent Brodkey (1987, 4) and Bordieu (1991, 20) from falling back on the idea that there are normative procedures that regulate citation practices.

The key problem with the interpretative approach is that it takes the scientific tenet that the process of citing and the relationship between texts needs to be clearly defined. Post-structuralist theory can be useful in this sense in that it demonstrates that one cannot really assert clear definitions based around authorial intention onto context-based reading processes. Roland Barthes’s (1967) essay ‘The Death of the Author’ argues that understanding the intention of an author is neither useful or desirable when understanding textual referents. This is because language operates not as a circular reciprocal structure, but as a more dispersed set of signs. A citation marker then, cannot refer backwards to highlight the importance of an older text, but rather, a citation marker can only refer forward into the future of that ‘old’ text. This is because language does not work as a static system; in post-structuralism, language is a highly dispersive and heterogenous marker that pushes ‘past’ texts into the future while having the impact of re-contextualizing them in the process. The interpretative approach views language as something ordered and permanent. The fact that they cannot figure out what these ‘ordered’ citation markers are actually saying should act as a solid indicator that they do not engage in a conversation between the original cited work and the work that is citing, and that each time a work is cited it is transformed into a new context taking on new signification. In this sense, the author as an authority becomes irrelevant and dispersed in that he/she cannot possibly retain control of the original information. It is here where the academics theorizing citation indexing come unstuck. If they fall back upon a normative approach, then they must realize how ideologically corrupt that approach is due to the overarching commodification of education and research, not to mention the fact that the normative theory is an attempt to assert to control and authority in asserting predictable practices. However, if they embrace contemporary linguistic and culturally theory, then they must accept that they will loss control of the hierarchy altogether.


Barthes, Roland (1967), The Death of the Author, Aspen, No. 5-6

Blackwell, P.K. & Kochtanek, T.R. (1981), An iterative technique for document retrieval using descriptors and relations, Proceedings of the 44th American Society for Information Science Annual Meeting, Washington: ASIS, 215-217

Bordieu, P. (1991), Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Brodkey, L (1987), Academic Writing as Social Practice, Philidelphia: Temple University Press

Czarniawska-Joerges B. (1998), Narrative Approach to Organization Studies, London: Sage

Fish, S. (1989), Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham NC, Duke University Press

Gibert, G.N. & Mulkay, M. (1980), Contexts of scientific discourse: social accounting in experimental papers, in Knorr, K.D. et al (eds.), The social process of scientific investigation, Dordrecht: Reidel, 269-294

Harter S.P., Nisonger T.E. and Weng A. (1993), Semantic relationships between cited and citing articles in library and information science journals, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 44(9), 543-552

May, K.O. (1967), Abuses of citation indexing, Science, 156, 890-892

Merton, R.K. (1977), The sociology of science: an episodic memoir, The Sociology of Science in Europe, Carbondale: South Illinois University Press, 3-141

Mitroff, .I.I. (1972), The myth of subjectivity or why science needs a new psychology of science, Management Science, 18, 613-618

Voos, H. & Dagaev, K.S. (1976), Are all citations equal? Or did we op.cit. your idem? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 1(6), 19-21

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