How Much Should I “Show My Work?” A Promote/Demote Exercise for Source Information

A central consideration for orienting is how much background knowledge to assume on the part of the reader. In the entry on contextualizing information, we address how to evaluate what information to include with regards to key terms and claims. Another important consideration, however, is how much information to offer about sources and extant scholarly debates, and where to include that information. Orienting the reader is especially important here, because discussion of sources and existing scholarly perspectives is how a piece of academic writing communicates its contribution to the field as a whole. The question is, in so many words, how much to “show your work.” How much information about my sources, their relationships to one another, and their import to the field as a whole would be useful to my reader? This entry discusses a targeted promote/demote exercise concerning sources: when to provide contextual information about a source in the body of the text, and when to keep it in a footnote or endnote.

There is a high-level question to keep in mind: what kind of information about your sources is relevant to the kind of argument you are making? For instance, if you are making a primarily empirical argument in the social or physical sciences, then the most important information about your references is likely what relevant empirical questions been studied and what the top-level findings have been. If you are making a primarily theoretical or historical argument, however, which requires close reading of multiple primary texts, the relationships between major authors may deserve closer attention. Consider, for instance, a paper on how German Idealists responded to the French Revolution—the relationships between the primary texts and authors concerned likely deserves some explanation within the main body of the paper.

With this in mind, read through your draft. Look specifically for places in the text, whether in the body or the notes, that you introduce information about authors you are citing (beyond, say, a simple name and date): their theoretical perspectives, their relationship to other authors, their relevant past work, etc. For each instance, ask yourself two questions:

  1. How important is the claim to your argument overall?
    If the claim for which you are providing additional source information is essential to your argument (i.e., if your reader needs to accept it to find your overall argument persuasive), it is more likely that additional information about sources is valuable as support. As such, it is more likely that it will be useful in the body of the text. This is qualified, however, by a second consideration:
  2. What percentage and which kinds of readers will want this information?
    Keep in mind your prospective audience here. If you’re submitting to a general disciplinary journal, for instance, most readers may not expect (or know what to do with) fine details about scholarly debates. They will expect, however, some account of why the debate you’re intervening in is important to the field as a whole. If you’re submitting to a more specialized journal, meanwhile, the fine details may be of greater interest to a greater percentage of readers. Keep this in mind when determining what to leave in the body of the text and what to move to footnotes or omit entirely.

One of the fundamental distinctions at work here is between information that is helpful to a general reader and information that is helpful to a specialized reader. Information about your sources that has direct bearing on your key claims may be helpful to the general reader, and can serve them well in the main body of the text. More ancillary information, which gives a more robust picture of your intervention or places the interested reader might go for further investigation, is likely more useful to the specialized reader, who has greater familiarity with the surrounding debates. A specialized reader will be more inclined to look through your notes section.

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