Sources and streams

Marx remarks somewhere that the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And so it goes with one of academia’s most arduous traditions, the literature review.

I’ve decided to do something a little unorthodox for a piece I’m writing for my upgrade (the equivalent of orals in the US) and trace the sources of all the claims that a central review paper makes, so as to understand how we know what we know.

The topic and review paper I’ve chosen aren’t really worth remarking on here. Rather I want to describe the way that doing this exhaustive and exhausting process maps, metaphorically at least, onto finding the source of a river.

Each reference which is made in the paper forms a stream which connects it to other papers and references. Some are easy to trace back to their source, whether it be an empirical study or survey. Other claims are made without reference and rely on our trust of the person making it.

There are moments when the stream disappears underground and reappears somewhere unexpected. This happened explicitly in a case where the reference pointed to the wrong paper, only for it to become clear that the origin of this incorrect reference was itself a third paper referenced later in the text.

Other times when papers don’t explicitly cite their source, especially in papers written by  non-academic bodies like government agencies, the stream gets lost and mixed up with all the other citations form the paper, forming something like a lake.

Perhaps this is all obvious to post-structuralists, but this process has been a lesson about how knowledge doesn’t fall into discrete individual quanta that can unproblematically followed back to their origin. There’s much more mud and confusion in the water. But the water definitely exists, even if the course it takes isn’t always obvious.

This is a map of the Nile and its drainage basin ( This is a map of the Nile and its drainage basin (

P.S. In the spirit of good citation practice, here’s where that quote at the start comes from here:


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Harry Kennard

Energy, climate change and health researcher

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