The term circular reference (AKA catch-22 or the run-around) refers to any situation in which two or more points in a communication chain link back to each other without resolution. For example: Bob files a complaint with a company's customer support; the company refers him to the distributor; the distributor refers him to a sales rep; the sales rep refers him to the company's customer support staff. A circle is created with no one resolving the issue.
In journalism, as well as many other academic and information-based systems, a circular reference often means two or more information sources that use each other as reciprocal references. For example:
- A newspaper publishes an article using Bob as a source.
- Bob cites the newspaper article as a reference and support for his position.
The advent of end-user-editable public information sources such as Wikipedia has seen a proliferation of circular references (not to mention many other examples of slipping research standards). The following example was reported at Slashdot on 2008-04-19:
"An anonymous user added information to Wikipedia's entry on Sacha Baron Cohen three days before the now-referenced external article was written. The Independent wrote the referenced article apparently using Wikipedia as the source establishing his 'Goldman Sachs' career. Now Wikipedia uses as a references the article that came after the initial modification to Wikipedia itself."
The problem with this, clearly, is that the information is presented under false pretences. It gives the impression of being well-researched and reliable but there is a strong likelihood that it is inaccurate. Unfortunately, once other sources begin citing either of these references (in good faith), it becomes very difficult to stop the spread of misinformation.
Other types of circular references
Here are a few more quick examples:
- A computer application help file links to another file page for "more details" but the other file refers back to the first one.
- A child asks their mother for something, the mother says "Ask your father", who says "Ask your mother".
- In computer programming, one function requires the output of another function to provide a result, but the other function needs the result to provide the output.
- Everyone blames everyone else for a mistake.