The inconsistency of citation practices in nonfiction

Respecting copyright and using proper citation practices are essential principles of nonfiction writing. However, the extended controversy brought on by Suomen historian jännät naiset by Maria Pettersson has caused many writers, even experienced ones, to doubt whether they always know the correct course of action after all.

text timo tossavainen image timo tossavainen english translation Marko saajanaho

At the base level, citing sources should be about following a simple, unambiguous principle – if you use someone else’s text in your own work to such an extent that the original style is evident, the citation and its source must be communicated. On the other hand, everyone has the right to write about any subject of their choosing under their own name, regardless of how many have covered that subject beforehand.

The idea of this principle being difficult to follow is likely inspired by the fact nonfiction writing is not a clear singular entity but a large group of genres and works intended for different audiences. This can easily lead to different ideas about the criteria for writing one’s own unique text. When writing a mathematics textbook, for example, there is much less opportunity for originality in one’s verbiage than in a travel guide.

On the other hand, citation practices tend to vary because nonfiction writers want their text to serve the target audience as effectively as possible. Rather few readers want the same citation practices in a Finnish birdlife book and a biography. The functions of a science book and a children’s reference book are so far apart that it would not be appropriate in the slightest to demand the same citation practices for both. Of course, that still does not mean you cannot attach a list of citations in a reference book for children.

In addition, what quotation is has been interpreted differently in different eras, especially considering the use of foreign-language sources. For example, in some technology and natural science fields, Finnish terms and expression practices may have been created via translation.

The expectation is that citation practices in nonfiction writing will remain a topic of discussion in the future. In order to avoid any potential issues, it is recommended to familiarise yourself thoroughly with the conventions of your genre early on in the writing process and treat other people’s texts as you would want your own work to be treated.

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