There are 3,000 ways to cite source material - why not make it one?

Academic styles of referencing are confusing and outdated, says Alec Gill. So why not simplify the whole thing? Here's how...

June 25, 2009

Some academics have a "fetish" for their chosen style of referencing source material, and students can be inhibited by lecturers' conflicting advice on which style to use. These were among the findings of a symposium earlier this month at the University of Bradford focused on referencing and writing. One conclusion was that there are far too many referencing styles - there are well over 3,000 esoteric ways of citing source material. What purpose is served by all the archaic typography? The question was asked: "why not have one standard system?"

Departmental guidelines for students about "how to reference" are riddled with inconsistencies. Students are confused, especially if taking a joint degree; they have to switch between two different styles: "Harvard" and footnotes. Generally, students cannot see the logic behind the petty rules and the permutation of punctuation (brackets, underlinings, single quotation marks, italics, and commas dotted here and there).

The internet has added to the complexity of referencing with the vast use of "corporate authorship" material from organisations (National Health Service, BBC, The Times, Hansard). In addition, multimedia source material (blogs, DVDs, podcasts, YouTube) is proliferating. Technology attempts to ameliorate the situation with software such as EndNote and RefWorks. But their efforts merely accelerate the building of this Ivory Tower of Babel.

It is time to change. Academic styles of referencing must be reformed, unified and simplified. Citing sources needs to be speeded up by eliminating time-consuming keystrokes. My proposed method builds on the traditional author-year system. However, it strips away the guesswork element that has scholars looking for clues in order to work out whether the source is a book, journal, film, webpage or whatever. I urge that italics, underlinings, brackets, bold type, inverted commas and some full stops are made obsolete.

The new method is explicit. That is, after stating the name(s) of the author and year, the citation in the bibliography openly tells the reader what type of resource follows - such as a newspaper, e-book, painting, chapter and so on. The system could be called: author-year-type. In effect, future reference lists will insert the type of material that is being referred to, but save the time and effort of going back and forth over the text to insert fancy formatting.

The list at the end of the academic work will, of course, remain in alphabetical order, and sources cited within the body of the text will also remain the same (author, year and page number, if necessary).

Obviously, there has to be consistency, and this I hope is provided in the eight examples below (a more detailed list is available at my Academic Reflexions blog:

- Cavendish, C. 2009 eNewspaper: Insane Spendaholics are Mortgaging our Future, The Times, 20 March accessed 2 June 2009.

- Chalke, S. 2003 Book: How to Succeed as a Working Parent, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

- Cline, W.R. 1992 eBook: The Economics of Global Warming, Washington DC: Peterson Institute accessed 2 June 2009.

- Mason, R. 1994 Chapter: The Educational Value of ISDN, in Mason, R. and Bacsich, P. (eds) ISDN: Applications in Education and Training, Exeter: Short Run Press.

- NHS Choices 2009 Web: Jet Lag accessed 21 March 2009.

- Sloniowski, L. 2005 Blog: Information Literacy in Canada - Because Sharing is Nice, 30 June accessed 2 February 2006.

- Thompson, K. 2003 Journal: Fantasy, Franchises, and Frodo Baggins, Velvet Light Trap, 52/45-63.

- Wings of a Butterfly 2005 Podcast: ABC Radio National, Sydney accessed 16 Sept 2005.

We need to become detached and analytical about what is at the heart of scholarly inquiry - the way we refer readers to our source material. Too much student and research time is wasted on trivial traditions. Understanding a bibliography should not be a game of Cluedo.

The reform of academic referencing styles is long overdue. A pragmatic approach is needed to declutter the Victoriana that has been inherited within our bibliographic styles. Academics - of all people - must apply critical thinking to their own methodology. The onus is upon us to bring referencing styles into the 21st century. This process is not "dumbing down"; we must catch up with reality, abandon absurdity and join the digital age.

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