What is Citation and Attribution?

Attribution or citation is the linking of ideas, concepts, and statements to their correct source. Attribution of quotes is an important part of all academic work. Style manuals produced by scholarly organizations such as American Psychological Association (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association), Modern Language Association (MLA Style Manual), and the University of Chicago (The Chicago Manual of Style) establish standards for many aspects of scholarly production. In particular, these works provide guidelines for consistent citation and referencing. This consistency allows open and coherent communication of scholarship, including verification of results through the checking of evidence and reproduction of conclusions. Good citation serves academic integrity, which is essential for meaningful scholarly work. Without reliable citation distinguishing sound work from shoddy work would become paralyzingly difficult, undermining trust and making scrupulous and unscrupulous scholars appear equally suspect.

What is Misattribution?

Misattribution is the incorrect association of ideas or statements with individuals or groups. There are numerous stories in the news about the academic world where misconduct and lack of citation results in severe problems for academic credibility. Especially in today’s high-pressure world of scholarly publication, careers can be destroyed over issues of plagiarism and misattribution, see this story in the New York Times. Misattribution and poor citation pose distinct challenges to academia’s place within society, particularly scholarly credibility. This limitation does not apply solely to academia; it has profound impacts in journalism, legal recourse, and business. For example, see a recent article about controversy regarding a quote attributed to George Orwell.

Even resources devoted to correct attribution can run into issues. As WikiQuotes can attest, there are a significant number of misquotations today. With our ever more connected online world, it is our responsibility as researchers and social media users to check our sources before we share. In doing so, we can lend credibility to our own digital work, and help to make our digital sphere one that encourages open, honest, and ethical communication. Below is a real-life example of this problem the members of the Edition faced, along with the steps we have taken to resolve just one misattribution. The example provides suggestions for recognizing, correcting, and preventing the continuation of misattribution that is commonplace today.

What Do We Do About It?

Knowing that misattribution is a substantial problem, what can scholars do about honest misquotation, particularly in social media? What can one do to guarantee accuracy, or more problematically, what do we do when we know something has been misattributed?

Seeing the Problem

The quote “the earth has music for those who listen” is commonly attributed to one of two sources: Shakespeare and George Santayana. Seeing multiple sources tips us off that we want to look for a document to back up these claims. This leads to our next step.

Researching the Issue

What is our role as an institution?

The Santayana Edition Staff is devoted to closely examining and editing all of George Santayana’s papers. In fact, that is the primary function of the Edition. In all of this research, no sign of this quote exists within the documents the Edition has available. Thus, we cannot attribute the quote to him.

Who else has been suggested?

Without a firm piece of evidence linking the quote to Santayana, we need to look at the other commonly attributed source, William Shakespeare. A quick web search lets us know that there is an entire webpage devoted to how “The Earth has music for those who listen,” does not belong to the Bard of Avon.

Scratch Shakespeare, so now what?

For years, the issue of the quote was set aside. After many hours devoted to the hunt, no one was able to discover who the quote really belonged to. Then, one day, we got lucky. An amateur researcher, unaffiliated with the Edition, provided a verifiable attribution.

Correcting Misinformation

This is where things get challenging. With the popularity of Twitter, Facebook, and various meme sharing, removing a misquote is incredibly difficult. What avenues do we have to get the word out?

Start with what you can control.

First, we updated our webpage. Our thinking? “If there is a center for research devoted to a topic, I know people might look there.”

Then, we updated the quote on WikiQuote, citing the appropriate researcher along the way (lest we continue the cycle of bad citation).

Moving on to social media, we posted to Twitter and Facebook, letting people know that we had a verified source for the quote from our own platforms.

Interact with digital partners to help expand your reach.

We reached out to our Shakespearean web page owner, asking them to make an update. They were very polite about doing so, and it was an opportunity for some academic cooperation. Hopefully together we can break the cycle of misattribution.

Finally, knowing that it is next to impossible to respond to every posting that is incorrect, we have begun responding to institutional tweets and posts which attribute the quote to Santayana. These institutions have exponentially greater influence than our own social media presence. By contacting them when we see a misattributed post, more people will be able to see the fix.

Don’t give up.

We continue to update our website and contact owners of institutional social media accounts as we see this quote pop up. It is an uphill battle, with institutions as big as the National Parks Service posting the quote in infographics.

Eventually, I intend to create a corrected infographic that will hopefully put the nail in the coffin for all of the incorrect ones.

Prevention is the Key to Stopping Misattribution: Guidelines for Good Digital Stewardship

Many academics fail to see that the digital world requires just as much consideration as the real world. Breaking the notion that the digital sphere is separate from reality is a critical component in this effort.


The first key to stopping misattribution is to educate people about the importance of verifying their sources. While we have known about this in academia for years, with the growth of the internet, it is even more important that we be good digital citizens.

Take the Time to Double Check

Before you click the “share” or “retweet” button, make sure that what you send is the truth. When in doubt, check with scholarly institutions or do a little background sleuthing. Yes, it takes more time, but it saves some embarrassment and headaches in the long run.

With Many Followers Comes Great Responsibility

If you are sharing materials in a very public way, make sure to verify what you’re putting out as content with an actual document. Don’t just accept that what you’re quoting is accurate or the actual author’s intent.

Be Honest to Your Sources

Avoid paraphrasing the thoughts of others when you author materials if you work in the public realm. Make sure that you do attribute, but be clear about how you are doing so.


Through improving digital citizenship, we can help to make our internet sources more reliable and useful. When we establish ourselves as digital scholars, our work becomes substantially more likely to create change. People put a significant amount of faith in researchers about the statements that they make. By taking a little bit more time, we can help to live up to that public trust. In doing so, we protect our institutions, our followers, and ourselves.

Note: This material appeared in a different form on A Historian Finding My Way under the title “The Challenges of Misattribution” on September 17, 2015. See that post here.

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