The problem with the 5-10 year “rule” for citations

Recently I have encountered more and more students who tell me that their advisors are indicating that all of their citations be within the past 10 years – preferably the past 5.  This is one of many damaging myths about scholarship and writing that I encounter (the other most common is to never use personal pronouns – wrong – see “Finding Your Voice“).  I am not sure where the notion comes from that citations must be limited to only the most recent, but in nursing in particular, this is especially damaging to the development of our discipline.  Of course as scholars we all want to know that an author has thoroughly investigated the very latest writings related to their topic, and the fact is that by the time a work is published in a journal or book, any literature cited is already fading into the distant past.  So of course currency is vital, but today becomes yesterday very fast!

The problem is that only indicating the most recent background renders any work void of the context, the roots, the historical perspectives that bestow wisdom and understanding. The work becomes sterile and relatively meaningless, regardless of how valuable it might be for the present. In a particular journal article, with limited space, obviously an author has to make difficult choices about what to include, and it might not be possible to explain the rich background that informs their work.  Nevertheless, if that background has been developed, the work will reflect that understanding, and the content, even the list of references, will include hints about the context and the history that informs today’s ideas.  What better “place” for emerging scholars to explore the rich  connections between works from years gone by than in their student experiences!

Ignoring, or encouraging students to overlook the important works of the past is one factor that has led us to a point in time when past nursing scholarship has been more and more neglected.  Theories and philosophies in the discipline place current work within the disciplinary context.  If students are required to only consider works published in the past 5 to 10 years, they will miss the rich foundations that place their work within the the discipline.  Theoretical ideas, at the same time, are not static, nor are they meant to be.  There is an evolution over time, and current work that is situated within a theoretical and philosophic tradition contributes to that development.  The work becomes significant for the discipline as a whole, not simply significant to the topic of the specific inquiry.  To achieve participating in this “lineage” the early works must be acknowledged, and the lineage laid out, even if in very abbreviated form.

Overlooking the disciplinary context within which a work is developed leaves the author vulnerable to shifting into another disciplinary perspective, and struggling to find meaning with the context of nursing’s most important contributions to the discipline.  Take for example the recent popularity of using “self-efficacy” theory in nursing.  Taken alone, this theory is not unlike nursing’s own “self-care” theories, but bereft of acknowledging the evolution, criticisms and challenges to “self-care” in nursing, works based on this theory perpetuate the relatively limited perspectives inherent in “self-efficacy” (or “self-care.” (I might note that these theories are “older” than 5-10 years!)

To me, the missing “nursology” pieces here are the vital importance of relationship between those cared for and those providing the care, and the social context, the “social determinants.” Without a more complete nursology perspective, these fade into the background, even into oblivion.  I am reminded of the notable work by Joanne Hess in her dialectic critique of the notion of “compliance.”  (Hess, J. D. (1996). The Ethics of Compliance: A Dialectic. ANS. Advances in nursing science, 19, 18–27.).  Any work in nursing that deals with self-efficacy or self-care must, in my view, address these fundamental nursology perspectives.  Hess’s work addresses the nature of the relationship between the one who is expected to “comply” (often a self-efficacy or self-care “task”) and the one prescribing the desired compliance. Scholars bear a responsibility to dig deep into this kind of foundational literature – even looking in nooks and crannies that might, at first glance seem tangential.

I welcome your comments and responses to this!  I know I am taking a rather strident position on this – so maybe voices from other sides of the issue, or more moderate voices can contribute to our understanding!  Please share yours!


16 thoughts on “The problem with the 5-10 year “rule” for citations

  1. I think this is an important issue to “bring into the open.” On a number of levels the ‘recent literature’ requirement in a student setting defeats the purpose of scholarly exercise for students. It changes the dial on scholarship from encouraging digital literacy to a focus that may well eliminate rich learning. And it places undo stress on students to produce literature that they may not be advanced enough to evaluate according to their learning needs.

    • Thank you for this. It is a “requirement” with no evidence that I can identify, and doing a great deal of damage to the process of learning to be a thoughtful scholar.

    • I never thought of the 5-10 year literature requirement standard this way. Something to reflect on and consider in balancing the approach to teaching students the critical value and importance of foundational concepts, theories, and principles of the nursing profession. Thank you for sharing this insight.
      Regards. Shona

  2. Dear Peggy,
    I absolutely agree with you. We need to relate nursing’s journey to where we are so must look back. It seems this is pervasive. If you want an educational program to receive CEUs, references cannot be more than 5 years old. It’s time to rethink what we are losing.
    Suzan ULrich

  3. Dear Peggy: This rule may have some relevance in the area of empirics yet the other knowing patterns (especially ethics) have strong underpinnings in the ideas and notions of, just to name a few, Aristotle (human flourishing), Levinas (hermeneutic phenomenology), etc. Classic white papers are classics for reasons of history and foundation in disciplines. The US Constitution comes to mind.
    Barbara Bennett Jacobs

    • So astute, Barbara! If students are being given even the impression that these and other classic, foundational documents are worthless because they are “old” – what a travesty! I also believe that even in the realm of empirics that the evolution of how the physical world is understood has great relevance. I hope that faculty everywhere will start serious discussion around this issue, and change the climate that students are being exposed to.

  4. Dr. Chinn, I take your position. First, I feel that some works are timeless, classic, and continue to be relevant and informative to modern nursing practice, despite being more than 5-10 years old. I agree that this allows for contextualization of the issue being explored, but also feel it allows us to debate and deepen the discussion regarding nursing’s current and historical positions on important issues (ie: previous papers published on nursing’s relationship to technology- then vs. now… or, for example, the work Dr. Jane Georges has done exploring nursing’s relationship to human suffering).

  5. I agree completely with Peggy and the others who have commented. I add that exceedingly important contextual literature is the (now older but original) books and journal articles written by out major nurse theorists, such as Johnson, King, Levine, Neuman, Orem, Rogers, Roy, Leininger, Newman, Parse, Orlando, Peplau, and Watson.

  6. These seem to be wise words. So often I read nurses, midwives (and others) quoting philosophers from the last century. However rather than reading the originals or even a translation they are citing the third “generation” who have cited the originals and, as we all know with the old game of Chinese whispers, the original message gets lost

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  8. I completely agree. If the push is entirely on “current” and not on thoughtful, or relevant sources, then we are teaching students the wrong way to look at and evaluate literature. A critical analysis of evidence is not limited to the “age” of the article. For my own recent study, I had only one or two articles in my background literature that would have met the 5-10 year criteria! I learned the value of looking at how the state of knowledge on the topic (well-child care, in this instance) has evolved over time. That knowledge has tremendous value! What is new knowledge if you have no context of historical knowledge? My humanities education has provided so much meaning and context for my nursing knowledge and I want my students and all future nurses to find the same value in the classic, primary texts from nursing, philosophy, and the arts. Thank you for writing this.

    • I have the same experience. My medical anthropology education has provided me the tools for deep contextual analysis that has been invaluable in my teaching and clinical practice in nursing. We need to understand the evolution of the theories and concepts we are utilizing. I remember my first medical anthropology professor talking with me about my first paper and asking me why in the world I had only used references that were 5 years old and making it clear that this was not acceptable for scholarly writing in this discipline. I explained to him that this was the rule in nursing. We had a long discussion about the importance of understanding the role of history in the evolution of ideas and how that history is embedded in nursing in ways that we can’t see and don’t even know.

    • thank you for adding to this conversation, Kara! You are so right – historical context is everything in order to understand what we are dealing with in the present!

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