Informative Questions & Answers
Q: How many references do I need for my paper? It's eighty [or fifty, ninety, etc.], isn't it?
A: Contrary to consistent rumor, there is no magic number! If your paper's purpose is to review an area of research then you probably want to be rather exhaustive, in which case the number can be large. However, this is not always the case, and a smaller number of references may be perfectly adequate. Most importantly, the bibliography should be thorough and up to date. No matter what the total number of papers, you would not want to omit a recent reference that directly addresses the topic of your paper.
Q: Why do I need to have ten to fifteen key references?
A: Your paper is a scholarly work, and such works contain a limited number of key ideas. Your key references are essential for a proper understanding of those ideas. Other references support secondary points which are not central to the work you are presenting (though this does not mean they are unimportant).
Q: When do I have to choose those key references?
A: The idea is for you to identify these key references well before writing your draft, since they provide the intellectual support for your paper. Ultimately you should know them very well and be prepared to discuss them in detail during your defense. This means, for instance, that you should be able to give a precise and informed account of any figure in the paper, including details of the methods employed, and a critical evaluation of the data.
Q: How do I identify those key references?
A: That is precisely for you to figure out, and your decision is an important part of your work. However, important papers are often published in a relatively small set of high visibility journals. These journals vary from field to field within Biology, and your advisor should be able to help you with a list of choice journals. Similarly, unimportant papers tend to be published in obscure journals (with honorable exceptions), only to languish in library shelves until unsuspecting students resurrect them. So quality and reputation of the journal can be a rough indicator of a paper's quality and significance.
Q: So, do I start my comps by reading those references?
A: Unless you have an amazing memory, probably not. The question posed has a background, and you need to be familiar with central concepts and terminology in the appropriate subdiscipline(s). Start with a thorough review of the basics of your topic in textbooks and notes from relevant classes you have taken. This background will give you a general, relatively coherent picture of the state of knowledge in your chosen area, and will assist you in identifying those key references. This study could also point out areas where more research is needed, and where you may choose to inquire further. Keep in mind that textbooks, even last editions, are typically several years out of date.
Q: I read an article in which Dr. Smith makes an important point, (he then quotes Dr. Jones). Can I go ahead and just quote Dr. Jones myself?
A: This "derivative" use of references is unacceptable in professional writing. You cannot cite a paper you have not read. You can simply not put your faith in Dr. Smith.
Q: Does that mean that I have to read all my references in detail?
A: No, you must do that only for key references. For other references the line is a bit gray. Blaise Pascal's standard is probably not the worst: "People ask me if I have read all the books I quote. I reply that I have not; it would certainly have meant spending my life reading very bad books; but I did not use a single passage without reading it myself in the book quoted, going into the context involved, and reading the passage before and after it, to avoid all risk of quoting an objection as an answer, which would have been reprehensible and unjust."
Q: Do all my references have to be very recent?
A: Not at all. Two randomly selected examples make this point. If you check the May 3, 2003 issue of Science you will find a major article on the sequence of human chromosome 7. Even for a paper in this exploding field the average reference is from late 1999 (with several references from the early 1990's). In the same issue you will find an interesting paleoecology article. In this case the average reference is from 1996. The point is that much important work was conducted before the year 2000. However, you should avoid using an older reference uncritically, when more recent research has superceded it and rendered its conclusions obsolete.