Sunday, August 02, 2015

Citations Are Out Of Style

In addition to occasionally aiding and abetting torture, the American Psychological Association is perhaps best known in schools for the APA Style Guide, which is frequently used when writing about topics in the social and behavioral sciences. My high school uses the Modern Language Association's Handbook instead as the go-to source for writing research papers. Both guides are well-researched, thoughtful, and very helpful to students in the entire writing process. In my experience, however, they are most often the topic of conversation when it comes to using the proper formatting when citing your sources. Over the years many a student has spent countless hours trying to get the correct spacing, punctuation, and abbreviations/underlining/italics/etc. correct so that their paper wouldn't get returned to them all marked up in red ink (often without benefit of even getting feedback on the actual content of the paper). Thankfully, today we have many electronic resources like EasyBib that allow students to accomplish this task much more easily and much more accurately. We need to stop.

No, I'm not saying we should stop using tools like EasyBib. As long as we have APA or MLA-type requirements, then students should definitely take advantage of the tools to accomplish those requirements quickly and accurately. What I'm saying is that we need to stop using APA or MLA citation requirements altogether. That doesn't mean that I think students shouldn't cite their sources; they definitely should. What I'm suggesting is that both APA and MLA citations are legacy artifacts that are no longer the best way to accomplish the primary objectives of citation:
to uphold intellectual honesty (or avoiding plagiarism),[1] to attribute prior or unoriginal work and ideas to the correct sources, to allow the reader to determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author's argument in the claimed way, and to help the reader gauge the strength and validity of the material the author has used.[2](emphasis mine)
I'm curious. I wonder how many of the high school teachers (who I'm focusing on here, but it applies equally at other levels) have actually tracked down the original source of a citation on one of their student's papers? (Your time in graduate school doesn't count, I'm talking the day-to-day grading and feedback you give to your students.) I'm going to hazard a guess that it's not very often (if ever), and that the overall percentage of citations you have actually used to "determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author's argument in the claimed way" (in other words, read the entirety of the relevant section of the original source and reflect on it's relevance and applicability) is in the low single digits.

I suspect, instead, that the majority of a teacher's time is spent evaluating and providing feedback on the writing of the student (which it should be), and then the time spent on the citations is mainly on the formatting (which is not the purpose of citations). It's a prime example of "style over substance." I completely understand why the formatting requirements exist, by standardizing on and requiring precision in the formatting of the citations, we can ensure that the correct information is provided so that - should we want to - we can track down the source. But if we don't ever track down the source, what's the point?

So what's the alternative to APA or MLA? I think it's pretty simple and relatively obvious: it's the hyperlink. The vast majority of content today is available online, either the full text (or full images, audio, video, etc.), or a link to purchase the content in print form. Surely if the full content is online it makes more sense to link to the actual content so that the reader can investigate for themselves as opposed to a print citation that would require the reader to purchase or find the printed copy of the material. If the full content is not online, linking to where you can acquire that content seems to me to be much more useful than the print citation as well.

But what about sources that are not online, say out-of-print books? Well, first, I would question the "relevance of the work to the topic of discussion" if it's not available online. If a source is old enough that it doesn't exist online, and no one thinks it's important enough to make it available online even for purchase, then how relevant is it? What are the chances that the reader is going to be able track down this out-of-print, not-available-to-order online work, in order to accomplish the purposes of citation? In the rare case that a piece of material like this is relevant, we could have a simple, old-style citation, but I have to think this would be very rare.

What are the downsides to this system? I see two major complications. First, if you are linking to content online it is not always easy to identify the exact section (page, etc.) that you might be referencing (for instance, for a quote). Web "pages" often don't have "pages," they just scroll. And if you link to a way to acquire the material (say, to Amazon), then you run the risk that different copies ordered from that same link might be formatted differently, thereby changing the "page" the specific content you're referencing is on.

I think this is worth some discussion in the academic community, but I see several possible ways to address this. First, if the full content is online, the point is somewhat moot. If you are trying to find the exact quotation, you simply have to search the content. If the full content is not online and you are linking to a way to acquire the material, then perhaps we could come up with a brief citation protocol that could identify the relevant section of the material so that it could be easily found if anyone were to actually track it down in print. (Suggestion for publishers: figure out a system of both relative and absolute reference inside your published works to address this very issue.)

The second complication is a bit more challenging. As we all know, links sometimes change or disappear. I think this problem can really be divided into two scenarios, one of which is the most realistic one for most of us, which essentially makes the problem moot, and one of which is still very real but surmountable. The more realistic scenario, the one that the vast majority of students and teachers in high school will face, is that those citations are only going to be accessed for a very short time period. I don't know what the typical length of time for writing a high school paper is, but I would imagine it is less than six weeks from start to finish. A very high percentage of links that a student would use are still going to be valid six weeks later and students could confirm those links (and update if necessary) just before submitting their paper. The chances of those links becoming incorrect in the time it should take the teacher to assess the paper is very, very small.

For the rare occasions (at least in high school, but certainly not so rare as students get older) that you need your citations to be long-lived, then the possibility of links becoming outdated is most likely proportional to the age of the citation. (The older your citation, the more likely it becomes that the link becomes outdated.) Again, I think the academic community should discuss this, but I see several possible solutions, including tools that capture the web page at the time of the citation (Diigo, for one, or even just screenshots) or including a brief reference along with the link that would allow a dedicated reader to track down the material. (Suggestion for Amazon: figure out a way to make your links long-lived, so that even as things change existing links would still connect the user to an archive that shows them the relevant information.)

Is such a system perfect? Probably not, although I imagine if folks smarter than me started working on it it could be made pretty darn good. But, if our goal with citations is actually to further learning, to allow the reader to not only verify where we got our material but to explore further, then links are clearly superior to APA or MLA-type citations.

Just ask yourself, when is the last time you clicked on a link to learn more? When is the last time you tracked down the printed copy of an APA or MLA citation? Which system is more conducive to learning?


  1. For major research projects our students create a shared Google folder which contains outlines, annotated bibliography, drafts and copies of source material.(Hint: Use Chrome & the "save to Drive" feature to capture PDFs of all sources). In high school, we emphasis the research process and our teachers DO look at the source material because they are involved and guiding students throughout the process - not just checking the sources at the end. With EasyBib and citations provided by subscription database articles there is less emphasis on the formatting of the citation. Emphasis is instead placed on how does the quote from the source material act as evidence for your thesis statement. As a Librarian I want my students to look at print and digital sources because the goal is to find authentic and credible sources and the only way to check for bias and authority is to compare the information contained in one source against another. Printed sources can be scanned on a copier and saved as PDF and placed in the shared Google folder. Sources can be annotated with apps like Notability. Yes, use a hyperlink but the real value happens when students and teachers are discussing sources throughout the research process.

    1. @Colette - thanks for the thoughtful comment. I completely agree, discussion of those sources throughout the process - we well as the ideas - is extremely important. I also think it is somewhat rare. The focus of this post was that perhaps we should consider ditching a legacy process that no longer serves a purpose. Many of my teachers (for example), ask students to print out their paper before they turn it in because it's easier for the teacher to grade that way. That, of course, kind of discourages clicking on a hyperlink :-).

      I also was trying to emphasize learning over formatting. To me, a citation is pretty useless if no one ever bothers to read the source.

  2. I agree hyperlinking makes a lot of sense and the solutions laid out are feasible. As a current doctoral student, I am knee deep in APA citation formatting. My coursework suggests some of the automatic formatting tools (a la EasyBib) are not always accurate and need some manual oversight, but that's not your point. I wonder if one of the reasons K-12 holds on to this citation stuff is similar to the way K-12 holds on to some advanced math content: "...we need to prepare students in the events they'll go on to be a mathematician or engineer, they'll NEED to know Riemann sum notation!" and "...we need to prepare student in the event they'll go on to produce non-fiction academic work, they'll NEED to know APA citation." <-- hope this makes sense to someone other than me.

  3. I can say that I regularly check my high school students' sources. (I'm hoping there are others, but I think I'm the only teacher at my school who does.) Otherwise, there's no way for students to have feedback on whether they're making responsible use of their sources, i.e., whether they've plagiarized.

    Within the last few days I was thinking about this very topic and how we'll be crediting sources in the future. There's potential in hyperlinks. How to make it feasible to distinguish quoted, paraphrased, and summarized material has me puzzled. Maintaining a standardized format is important for easy intelligibility to readers, both for a quick assessment of a source based solely on the citation (e.g., the author and date of publication can say something immediately) as well as for tracking down sources.

    I don't like the online citation creators, as I find them leading to incorrect information--at least for online sources. Then again, I can be stumped by how to cite some web pages, despite having worked diligently with MLA, APA, and Chicago formats for decades.

    Also, one of my college students told me last semester that she'd just found that EasyBib was incorrectly formatting her Chicago/Turabian citations. She kept getting dinged on her papers and then finally consulted a print manual. I think the error was small, but it was there nonetheless.

    1. @Andrew - Thanks for the comment. Why do you think you might be the only one at your school?

      I agree that it may not be totally straightforward for how to transition to a hyperlink-based style of citation, but I think that we can figure it out. My concern really isn't with the plagiarism aspect. Not that I want them to plagiarize - I don't. But my bigger concern is with the learning involved. If we make it easy for everyone to find the sources (really, re-sources) we've used, then everyone has the chance to learn more about whatever the topic is. I care more about that than I do about the "properly formatting" or even "giving credit where credit is due" aspects.

      Could just be me, though.

  4. Karl,

    I found your analysis of citations to be quite interesting. I too believe that the time spent on formatting a citation is not the overall purpose of citing your work and it would make more sense to move to a system that provides sources in the form of hyperlinks. Currently, I have been learning about using Diigo as a way to bookmark and curate content, but also as a way to create a home for student resources. Students can use a social bookmarking tool like Diigo to keep their sources in one place and they can even highlight the exact parts of the text they use in their paper. Using a program like this, teachers could see all the sources in one space and exactly where there quotes were coming from. In the bigger picture, this would also allow teachers to see where students go to find information and lead into a discussion on finding quality sources. I think Colette touched on this when she mentioned using a google drive to place sources in a folder that a teacher can review through the writing process. The citing is not the issue, it’s the format of citing that should change.
    I should add that I teach students in upper primary/middle school, so my viewpoint on this topic is coming from working with this age group.