Secondary referencing (and the problem with aphorisms)

Secondary referencing is considered to be poor academic practice. It is important to find the original papers and cite them, or explain in a footnote why the original papers are no longer available or accessible. Merely mentioning that someone else has cited something that you wish to rely on is unreliable. The authors of the secondary source may have changed the original author’s meaning or taken it out of context. They may also have been using the original source to make a different point to yours. This is why it is important to find the original source rather than rely on another author’s interpretation.

Just one example highlights the dangers of secondary referencing. Here is a widely-used quote, often called the Common Law of Business:

It is unwise to pay too much but it is worse to pay too little. When you pay too much you lose a little money, that’s all. When you pay too little you some- times lose everything because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the things it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot-it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder it’s as well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.” Known as the Common Law of Business Balance, this quotation has been widely attributed to Ruskin but has never been sourced to any of his works.

This is widely attributed to John Ruskin, usually with a year somewhere in the late 19th Century. Many people cite this a secondary reference, as in Ruskin, cited in xxxx, etc. This is because it is difficult to track down anywhere that John Ruskin wrote it. There is simply no evidence that John Ruskin wrote it. The appeal of this aphorism is clear. But it lacks any underpinning, whether philosophical or analytical. By adding Ruskin’s name to it, it gathers weight and currency. But it is nothing more than an aspirational statement about how people, generally, wish the world would be. As such, it is not an established “law”.

Aphorisms are popular, but often they are not what they appear to be. Always look for the original source, so that you can be sure of what the supposed original author actually did in order to justify the claim you are atributing to them.


About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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