Ambiguous Citations

By Jul.15, 2016

Or, how do you know what is what?


Let’s start with the basics:

When you are referencing your information sources you use citations within your text. These are brief, just names and a date in brackets, in your text.

Then at the end of your essay or assignment you have a reference list. This is a list of everything you have cited, with each reference providing the full details of the works you have cited in your writing.

This means if someone reading your work sees an interesting idea they can use the citation to find the matching reference, and then use the details in the reference to find the original work to read for themselves.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Yes, usually it is. But sometimes a citation might match two references, for example, an author might have written two papers in the same year and you have used both of them in your essay, or you might have two different authors with the same surname writing in the same year.

Which one is which?

These are called Ambiguous Citations, and when this happens you need to add extra information to your citations to differentiate them.

Part 1: Same author, same year

zombie writing
The same author has written two or more works in the same year.

To tell these apart, simply add the letters a, b, c, etc. after the year, for example:

(Davis, 1983a) and (Davis, 1983b)

If you are citing these two works together, treat them like this (Davis, 1983a, 1983b).

Here’s the tricky part! Assign the letters a, b, etc. in the order the works will appear in your reference list – which is not necessarily the same order they will appear in your writing.

You reference list is arranged alphabetically by author, then year, then title. P comes before T, so these two references will be ordered like this:

Davis, E. W. (1983a). Preparation of the Haitian zombi poison. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 29(2), 139-149.

Davis, E. W. (1983b). The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 9(1), 85-104. doi: 10.1016/0378-8741(83)90029-6

Part 2: Different authors, same name, same year

two zombies writing

Sometimes you might cite two or more works by different authors who have the same surname. If they have been written in different years this isn’t a problem, your reader will be able tell the apart. But what if they have been written in the same year?

Add each authors’ initials to the citation, before the surname:

(F. Parker, 2011) and (J. Parker, 2011)

Now when your reader looks at your reference list it is clear which work is which:

Parker, F. (2011). What would Foucault Think about Speed Runs, Jeep Jumps, and Zombie? In L. Cuddy (Ed.), Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved (pp. 161-175). Chicago: Open Court.

Parker, J. (2011). Our zombies, ourselves: why we can’t get the undead off our brains. Atlantic Monthly, 307(3), 32-33.

Ahh, but what if the authors have the same surname and the same initial? Then you should write their given names in full:

(James Parker, 2011) and (John Parker, 2011).

Part 3: Multiple authors, same first author, same year

Okay, this is getting complicated now. Bear with me.

Quite often you will get research teams working together and writing papers together, and sometimes they will write several papers in a year.

research team

If you are familiar with the APA 6th style of referencing used here at Salford you will already know that when you have a work with three to five authors you list all their names the first time you cite the work, and in subsequent citations, just the first author followed by et al. – which is an abbreviation for “and others”.

So if you have a work written by five people list all their names the first time you cite it, like this (Maxwell, Scourfield, Holland, Featherstone, & Lee, 2012) and then when you cite it again you only need to name the first author followed by et al., like this (Maxwell et al., 2012).

But what if Maxwell and her research team wrote more than one paper in 2012?
They did.
Here’s the other one: (Maxwell, Scourfield, Featherstone, Holland, & Tolman, 2012).

In a case like this you can’t use (Maxwell et al., 2012) for subsequent citations, because you won’t be able to tell which work is which in the reference list.

To differentiate them you need to add more authors until the citations are unique.

In this example the first two authors are the same so you will have to list the first three authors in subsequent citations: (Maxwell, Scourfield, Featherstone, et al., 2012) and (Maxwell, Scourfield, Holland, et al., 2012).

To sum all of this up: if you can’t tell which reference a citation is pointing to, add more information to the citation until you can.

Leave a comment