citation sprinkles

Kirby Conrod
6 min readDec 19, 2023

One of the suggestions I’ve left the most on otherwise-superb student research papers this past year has been asking for more shallow citations. I have no idea where I picked that term up, or if it’s a standard one*, but I want to explain what I mean and why I want to see more of them in student writing.

(*A quick web search suggests no, it’s not standard, so I really don’t know where it came from, oops).

deep citations are the main course

I take shallow citations to be in contrast to deep citations. Deep citations are what you do in the lit review section of a thesis or research paper: you deeply unpack a whole source. When I read a student’s lit review or thesis, I’m looking to see if I can find the Big Five elements of anything they’re doing a deep citation on:

  1. The main research question and/or hypothesis and/or thesis statement of the paper
  2. What’s the context of inquiry — because I teach linguistics a lot, this means looking for things like the Bender Rule and the Holliday Rule. Who are the people involved, what are the languages under discussion?
  3. How the researcher collected and analyzed data, or what argumentation they used to support their main point
  4. What the main conclusions/takeaways are of the paper
  5. How is the paper woven into the general cloth of the broader literature — who is it responding to, who responds to it, how is it received, how has it been followed up on?

That’s all really important stuff for a deep citation. If you do that for three relatively chunky journal articles that share three keywords, and then slap a beautiful hearty piece of bread (introduction and conclusion), that’s a lit review essay right there. I love that stuff.

shallow citations are the toppings

But that’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about shallow citations. These are… sprinkles. Garnishes. They take a dish (that humongous hoagie you’ve constructed) and turn it into a real meal.

Shallow citations don’t provide a thorough recounting of the source article. At most, a sentence. In a beautifully-constructed student essay, a single sentence can support 2–3 shallow citations. The shallow citations are there to say: I’m not just pulling this out of my ass, other people have talked about this in great detail, and I totally know about them and have absolutely read or at least skimmed some of the stuff about them. Here, some examples, because this is a pain without examples:

A strong alignment between these two constructs — P(rosodic)‑Focus and S(emantic)‑Focus — is expected since PF and LF interpret the same syntactic input. This alignment is thought to follow from some grammatical mechanism (e.g. a constraint system); two widely‑accepted generalizations about its effects are as follows (see e.g. Jackendoff 1972:§6.2, Selkirk 1984:§5.2, Truckenbrodt 1995:§4.3, Bü ring 2016:§4.1): [generalizations]

— from Ahn, Jeong, and Sailor (to appear).

(I like this example because it’s so specific — now I know exact sections of previous papers to go look at!)

Similarly, the ungrammatical sequence of a complementizer followed by a wh-phrase in (2a) becomes grammatical when a conjunction separates them, as shown in (2b) (Giannakidou and Merchant 1998; Citko and Gračanin-Yuksek 2017).

— from Citko & Gračanin-Yuksek (2020).

(This is a great example of “we’re not the first to observe this, this is just setup for the argument we’re about to make in a moment, but here, go see where this has been discussed elsewhere.”)

Theorizing this behavior within a linguistic repertoire of anti-Blackness provides a framework to confront the maintenance of white innocence (Gutiérrez 2006; Bucholtz 2019) and the non-Black actors who align themselves with it.

— from miles-hercules & Muwwakkil (2021).

(This is a lovely gesture of “look, if this is news to you, there’s lots of stuff you can go read about all that.”)

Mind you, these are all examples from published papers — primarily because I don’t have permission to share student work, but students absolutely can and do sometimes nail the shallow citation garnish.

I ask for them when I am reading and commenting on early drafts of papers (both as a peer reviewer for journals, and as an instructor of undergrads and a mentor to undergrad researchers). And I don’t want anyone to take this as a suggestion that you should go grab a fistful of shredded cheese from the bag in your fridge and just throw it on your dish — what I want for these toppings is for them to add something, for them to bring subtle flavors and complexity that would not otherwise be in the dish. Let them harmonize.

If you’re a student reading this and you’re working on a research paper, my recommendations for finding out where to add some shallow citation sprinkles:

  • Go through your entire paper, sentence by sentence. Really, yes, the whole thing — the introduction paragraph is often badly in need.
  • For each sentence, ask yourself “am I asserting something? Can anyone else but me have thought about this before?”
  • Go muck around in the literature. Start first with the bibliographies of papers you’ve done deeper citations on. Do a backwards citation search on those as well. Did anyone else before you think about this?
  • Do a power-skim of anything you find. Here’s some nice blogs about how to do that: (Tatman, Fruehwald, Keshav).
  • See if you can add about 2–4 shallow citations per paragraph. Be sure that you are attaching them to things that make sense. Do the citations bring in context? Do they enrich and deepen? If your instructor asked you why that citation was there, could you explain the link?

This is one of those things that will take an already very-good essay to an essay that will make your professor go “can I show this as an example to future students? Do you want to talk about submitting to a conference?” You may need to experiment some with getting the levels and flavors just right, but the process of experimentation will also help you see the larger context of your own intellectual contribution as a scholar. And that’s the whole point of these, basically — what are the threads that attach you to the web of knowledge we’re creating together? Whose work is growing because of your attention and engagement?

And instructors, if you teach writing, let me know how you discuss this part of academic writing in particular — is there another term you know for this kind of thing? How do you explain to students when the shallow citations are helpful/needed and when they might be excessive/distracting?


  • Rather than completely review an entire paper, sometimes you need to put in some little citations that just support your background assumptions or assertions, or support how your essay fits in to the larger world of research on a topic
  • If you are a student writing academic essays, learning how to thoughtfully add shallow citations in addition to deep citations will help you place yourself in an intellectual landscape

Thanks for reading! If you liked this short piece, you might also like some other stuff I’ve written about the craft of academic writing:

You can also find me on bluesky (I have invites!) if you like :)

Works cited

  • Ahn, Byron, Sunwoo Jeong & Craig Sailor. In Press. Systematic ‘stray’ focus stress in English? ApparentLY! In WCCFL 39 Proceedings, Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
  • Citko, B. & Gračanin-Yuksek, M., (2020) “Conjunction saves multiple sluicing: How *(and) why?”, Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 5(1): 92. doi:
  • miles‐hercules, D., & Muwwakkil, J. (2021). Virtue Signaling and the Linguistic Repertoire of Anti‐Blackness: or,“I Would Have Voted for Obama for a Third Term”. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 31(2), 267–270.



Kirby Conrod

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.