What’s your style?

September 19, 2007

Every so often, I have thought about the raison d’etre of citation styles. They contribute much to the overall health of scholarship in all fields of study by saving the time of readers who want find the sources from which an author developed their ideas, and by reducing the likelihood of plagiarism. Strangely, some citation styles fall short of saving the time of the reader; on more than one occasion, I helped students track down citations that omitted titles and page numbers. Yes, I’d like to believe that my memory has started playing tricks on me since leaving my last job, but I don’t think I could have made that up. The fact that articles could get through the editing process with such minimal information just amazes me, considering that I’m used to seeing more comprehensive citation styles, such as MLA, Turabian, Chicago Manual of Style, and so on. But then, the editors of these journals (mainly in engineering) must have some rationale that makes sense in their respective areas of study, or just for their specific publications.

More likely, a larger number of library personnel have encountered mismatches involving numbers within citations. Most of the information may be correct, but an incorrect volume number, year, or even page numbers can waste the time of faculty and students. If process of elimination doesn’t work, a well-structured Google search can come to the rescue of all involved.

To me, the essence of a good citation boils down to providing sufficient and accurate information in a consistent format that allows anyone to find the original work easily. I don’t think anyone can argue with such a simple rule. However, as we all know, the world of citation styles can get rather complicated, and they can cause much gnashing of teeth for anyone writing a bibliography. Bibliographic managers (such as RefWorks) may ameliorate the pain of churning out properly-formatted papers, articles, and so on, but only if one uses them prior to the initial stages of research. As the designated RefWorks contact at my last place of employment, I had to give the bad news to some people who had already started writing their papers that they couldn’t use RefWorks retroactively. One could still enter references manually, or even import citations if they ran the same searches again, but that would likely defeat the time-saving purpose of RefWorks.

Although RefWorks can help those who know how to use it prior to starting research, it still has a few bugs that need worked out with regards to punctuation. While giving a session about RefWorks a few years ago, I received a question from someone doubting its usefulness since RefWorks still let a few errors get by. The way I saw it (and still do), a few minutes double-checking a RefWorks-generated bibliography for accuracy seemed a lot less wasteful than typing by hand and fretting over one “manually” generated.

Now that I have discussed some challenges involving citation styles and the bibliographic managers designed to make them seem less painful, it behooves me to discuss what prompted this posting. A few months ago, someone asked Diane to contribute a chapter to a book. After a few rounds of proofreading from the editor, who liked the ideas in Diane’s chapter, all seemed well. In the meantime, the editor kept asking the publisher what citation style they required for the book. Finally, a few weeks after Diane finished her chapter, the publisher said that they wanted it in Chicago Manual of Style. Naturally, Diane used another style, so she needs to go back in and fuss over the picayune details of CMS. Diane also asked the editor for examples of CMS, but they actually varied in appearance, likely due to the variations that exist within CMS itself. She gave up trying to make sense of what she needed to do, so we went to Barnes & Noble on Monday to pick up a copy of CMS. They only had it in hardcover for $55, which may be a good investment in the long run if future editors or publishers want Diane to format articles in that style.

Diane’s situation made me wonder about all the fuss made over citation style formats. As I mentioned before, good citations are an essential part of scholarly research. However, I have also noticed how some people go overboard with citation styles. All of us have probably heard of professors who drop papers a whole letter grade due to improper formatting in a few citations. They justify it as a form of conditioning to make sure that students know how to cite properly in a specific format when they go forth into the world as professionals in whatever field. Such an outlook doesn’t help someone in Diane’s situation, who has to learn an entirely new format anyway due to the whims of a publisher. I have also heard about individuals who develop an almost unhealthy attachment to a specific citation style, and who will debate the merits of it with someone who feels just as strongly about another style format.

All this pickiness over citation style formats misses the point of having them in the first place: saving the time of the reader and preventing plagiarism. Otherwise, citation styles start to become objects of resentment and fear on the part of those who have to turn in bibliographies that satisfy the arbitrary preferences of those who have something for a specific style. Does it really matter whether a paper is cited in MLA, Turabian, APA, or whatever style? Does it affect the paper’s quality? Does a difference in styles really confuse people used to the style used in a certain discipline (especially with interdisciplinarity becoming more prominent)? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that they do, and I think such concerns seem like empty exercises that stray from the true value of scholarly research.

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