Citation cirrhosis?

Today I chanced to see a post on Barbara Fister’s blog, Library Babel Fish, on the site of the American magazine, Inside higher ed.  Ms Fister subtitles her blog “a college librarian’s take on technology”. I generally like her posts, which are characterized by clear thinking and (un)common sense. This one is entitled “Learning why, not how”, and she makes the point that excessive emphasis on correct citation in teaching courses for first year students detracts from more important learning, namely, “engaging with ideas, or engaging with the humans who share ideas as part of a collective effort to understand the world. “. She goes on to assert that “the activity of constructing citations is used as a stand-in for what academics actually value about ethical and well-sourced argument, but it’s a stand-in that conceals rather than illuminates.”

This rings a responsive chord. When teaching MLIS courses in the USA, I was struck by how anxious my students were to follow, to the last comma and semicolon, the complex rules for citing sources according to Chicago, APA, MLA or Turabian. They were anxious because they were afraid that their assignments would be penalized for errors in their citations. In the USA grades are very important to students, who graduate in a tough job market. In many African countries, by contrast, anyone who graduates with a master’s degree can be fairly confident of getting a job, regardless of their grade. So, when teaching another master’s course in South Africa in which students from various African countries were enrolled, I was often appalled at the sloppy, inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible citations and references in the work submitted by many of the students. This has also been my experience when serving as an external examiner for student theses submitted to various Southern African universities. It would seem that in this region, little if any attention is paid to citation style. This is bad. If anyone should be able to interpret and construct citations and references, it is the librarian. In this field, we are – or should be – the experts on campus. Our LIS schools should set the example.

That said, my experience on two continents illustrates two extremes: in the USA, an excessive emphasis on following the rules; in Southern Africa, a happy-go-lucky, hit-or-miss approach to citing and referring to sources.

In the USA, citation rules are part of a significant academic industry, that of providing style guidance to students, authors and editors – not only on citation style, but on every aspect of writing and one’s work and preparing it for publication. New editions of quite hefty tomes appear at regular intervals. A case in point is the ninth edition of Kate Turabian’s Manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago style for students and researchers, which is aligned with the 17th edition of the Chicago manual of style (CMOS). When a new edition of CMOS appears, it is a major talking point in academia. Many university libraries all over the English-speaking world have Libguides or other forms of guidance to students on the intricacies of the various styles. Among resources that can be found on-line, those collected by the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University can be recommended. The various manuals themselves can be accessed online. The body of accumulated rules, interpretations and commentaries is quite extensive, which is why I refer to it as an industry.

In that industry I’m consumer too. I subscribe to the online Chicago manual of style (CMOS). When preparing my book for publication, I followed CMOS for issues of grammar and style as well as for citation practice. (Readers can judge for themselves to what extent I succeeded.) Although I didn’t always agree, I found it really useful. As a subscriber, I regularly get to see the CMOS editors’ responses to the latest questions posed by anxious students, authors and editors. You can get a flavour of these in the CMOS Question and Answer pages. For example:

  • Q. For a book title within a book title in a language other than English, should quotation marks be inserted around the title within the title, just as we would for English-language titles (per CMOS173)?
  • Q. Hi, I was just wondering, how do you format the citation for a translated work if the name of the translator is not known?
  • Q. Hello. I am writing an essay for history in Chicago style, and when I state a fact I have been putting the number of the citation in parentheses after I have stated it. Is this correct? Example: Abe Lincoln became president in 1861. (5) Or do I need to put it as an exponent following the text?

I suppose that for the people posing these questions the answers are important, but I can’t help feeling that the arcane minutiae such as these are, when emphasized by some professors, at best a sort of mystification, at worst, a cop-out – a cop-out in that it absolves the professor from engaging with the substance of the work submitted. In the process it distorts the students’ perceptions of what really matters in scholarly writing.

When teaching in the USA, I informed my students that at the time I preferred the APA (American Psychological Association) style but that they were free to select one of the other manuals. I also advised them that, if they are not already doing this, they consider using citation management software, which will allow you to collect bibliographic data, store it, search it, and print it out in a great variety of bibliographic styles with just a few clicks. I also put in a plug for Zotero, which is free open source software. It has a number of features that are not available in commercial software, and it is portable: you can take it with you when you complete your studies and leave your school for another institution which may not have a site licence for the system used on your current campus.

I added my take on citation style:

Regardless of what style you use, the critical requirements of your bibliographic apparatus are that:

    • sources of ideas and facts are clearly identified
    • each item is readily and unambiguously identifiable
    • each item can readily be located
    • the style is used consistently

There is an additional desideratum, which follows Ranganathan’s fourth law: “Save the time of the reader”.  It is best observed by avoiding abstruse systems that are cumbersome for the reader to use.

Finally: don’t agonize over the outward marks of scholarship. Rather agonize over the content.

Accuracy, clarity and consistency are hallmarks of scholarship. But we need to balance rules with common sense and not allow the scholarly apparatus to get in the way of “engaging with ideas”.



About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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1 Response to Citation cirrhosis?

  1. Cecily Gilbert says:

    Thank you, Peter, for this distillation of the purposes for following a bibliographic citation style. I agree it’s really unhelpful when the style requirements become an additional burden for the writer. It worries me to see students fretting about punctuation, when their focus is best placed on the ideas they want to convey. Another thought: For too long, librarians have been portrayed as fanatics on citation correctness; rather, our advocacy should be for sources to be clearly identified, as an aid for the readers of the published work.

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