In this latest instalment on helpful tips concerning academic writing, I wish to consider that fraught area of quotations and references.
Whilst we all know about the evils of plagiarism and the need to acknowledge the sources of ideas that were not your own, the writer’s responsibility does not end there. One of the fundamental lessons in academic writing is the need to correctly reflect your sources. If you are going to reference another person’s work, or take a direct quotation from that work, it is essential that the writer correctly transposes the idea, or at the least the thrust or essence of the idea, of the author from whom you are borrowing.
A good example of the dangers of misquoting is one that I recently stumbled upon in my research on the established links between cancer and the EMF around high power lines. I only use it because it is the most recent example I have come across – it is by no means unique.
In a research paper issued by the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser (prepared by Professor Denis O’Sullivan of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), entitled ‘A Review of Recent Investigations into the Possible Health Effects of Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) from Power Lines’, which is often quoted by EirGrid and appears on their public website, the following paragraph appears on page 3 of the five page report:
“(b) Biophysical Mechanisms
A wide range of biophysical mechanisms have been put forward as possible explanations for alleged health effects of power lines and very low frequency EMFs. Lack of biophysical mechanisms operating at such low levels argues against causality. Recent investigations of the problem found ‘that some of the mechanisms are impossible and others require specific conditions for which there is limited or no evidence as to their existence in a way that would make them relevant to human exposure.’ The authors concluded that effects below 5 microT are implausible and ‘that health effects of environmental electric and magnetic fields are impossible‘ at this level of exposure.”
The italicized words, and more specifically the emboldened words, is a quote taken by the Chief Scientific Adviser’s Report from a journal article entitled ‘Biophysical mechanisms: a component in the weight of evidence for health effects of power-frequency electric and magnetic fields’, written by Swanson, J and Kheifets, L; and which appeared in the journal entitled Radiation Research(2006 Apr;165(4):470-8).
When I read the passage in the Chief Scientific Adviser’s Report, I took it to mean that Messrs Swanson and Kheifets had stated that it was impossible for low-level EMF to cause any ill effects at all. This puzzled me, at it seemed to run counter to Dr. Swanson’s other work in the area. I decided, as any good scholar should, to check the source of the quotation.
When I read the actual article written by the learned authors, it seemed to me that is not what they say. To quote the relevant portion of the abstract of that quoted article:
“We conclude that effects below 5 microT are implausible. At about 50 microT, no specific mechanism has been identified, but the basic problem of implausibility is removed. Above about 500 microT, there are established or likely effects from accepted mechanisms. The absence of a plausible biophysical mechanism at lower fields cannot be taken as proof that health effects of environmental electric and magnetic fields are impossible. Nevertheless, it is a relevant consideration in assessing the overall evidence on these fields.”
I am a lawyer, not a medical person, but when one reads the entire sentence (my bold) containing the portion that is quoted (my italics show the portion of the sentence not in the quotation), what the authors of the quoted article appear to be saying is that we cannot establish a definite causal link between cancer and EMF at low levels, but the fact that we cannot find it does not mean that there is no causal link. Now that is a very different meaning from the meaning one takes from the Chief Scientific Adviser’s Report.
To be fair, when this error was pointed out earlier today, the document prepared by the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser (which was originally published in 2011) was quickly corrected, and rightly so, as it would be very unfortunate if, during the previous three years, anybody was misled by the misquote. You can see the latest version at :
One would expect that the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor will issue an apology in an attempt to bring this error to the attention of all the readers of the Report in the previous three years to avoid any misunderstandings on the part of those readers. It would be ethically proper for EirGrid to do the same thing on their website.
A tiny error, but a huge difference in meaning. Students can take heart that even a high-powered research institution like the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor can make mistakes. We are all human after all.
The other lesson we can draw from this simple example is that academic writing is an exercise in critical analysis. What this means is that whilst it is imperative to critically analyse your own precepts and conclusions, it is equally imperative that you critically analyse your sources, and likewise ensure that the methodology of the sources that you use is sound. To do otherwise raises the danger that a mistake can be repeated, and thereafter perpetuated.