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Friday, 6 July 2012

Referencing is a nightmare! Does referencing style really matter?

Teaching the basics of bibliographic management packages to various groups of students and checking endless bibliographies of student theses, has highlighted their confusion surrounding referencing in general and the referencing/citation of electronic records such as journal articles in particular. I am convinced that referencing is indeed an art and not a science. Why is style such an issue?
  • Students are confused when they have been given referencing guidelines for a module/discipline only to discover that there are variations of that particular style across databases and bibliographic management packages, and different modules require different styles
  •  Even more confusing is the use of URLs or database names in a bibliographic reference (and the concomitant problems of these where uniqueness and permanence or persistence are issues.)  At the other end of the spectrum is the annoying use, by students, in citations of long URLs with no other details
  • Not all databases are as accommodating as JSTOR with nifty unique short handles (URLs) per article - but is it preferable to reflect the article identifier, or the database name and/or URL or a combination?
  • Is a PDF referenced as a print or electronic item?

Digital object identifiers
One of the ways of overcoming the shortcomings of identifiers such as URLs is the use of unique identifiers which Paskin [1] describes as ‘a concise means of referencing something.’ 1586 – 1592. In 2000 the Digital Foundation Organisation launched the first applications of the Digital Object Identifier (DOI®) system using a federation of registries following a common specification. ‘The DOI System provides a framework for persistent identification, managing intellectual content, managing metadata, linking customers with content suppliers, facilitating electronic commerce, and enabling automated management of media. DOI names can be used for any form of management of any data, whether commercial or non-commercial. The DOI System is an ISO International Standard.’(www.doi.org/). DOIs are alphanumeric (can be compared to the use of barcodes) and ‘the identity of and access to an electronic information source is maintained through its DOI regardless of changes in location, format or publisher’. [2] This may be the preferred way to go in the long term and less confusing for those who have to construct references.

Academic databases and DOIs and the vagaries of referencing
Not all, but many journal databases now provide DOIs for articles. This trend towards using DOIs instead of URLs has been accommodated in bibliographic management packages such as Refworks and Endnote that include the DOI field in their templates and output style for styles that require these identifiers. Some disciplines have required the inclusion of DOIs in bibliographic references for a while whilst others are more recently on board. For example, in 2008 the American Psychological Association (APA) changed its referencing requirements, suggesting the exclusive use of DOIs where available.

Here is an example of an online article from a database (as reflected in Endnote) using a DOI only as suggested by the American Psychological Association (APA) style guide 6th edition:

Hall, A. M., & Phillips, W. M. (2006). Weathering Pits as Indicators of the Relative Age of Granite Surfaces in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. Geografiska Annaler: Series A, Physical Geography, 88(2), 135-150. doi: 10.1111/j.0435-3676.2006.00290.x.

If an article has no DOI, what then? Database name and URL?

 a) Endnote suggests the following style for the American Chemical Society (ACS):

Kretsedemas, P. “But She’s Not Black!” Journal of African American Studies [Online], 2010, p. 149-170. a9h. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=48587199&site=ehost-live>.

b)    Endnote suggests the following style for the Modern Languages Association (MLA): 

Kretsedemas, Philip. "“But She’s Not Black!”." Journal of African American Studies 14.2 (2010): 149-70 pp.  EBSCOhost<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=48587199&site=ehost-live>.

These long URLs are really clumsy! Also, what about the referencing requirements to differentiate between preprints, online only journals, and those from databases?

Is it any wonder students are confused?
So, there are as many styles and variations of styles as there are guides produced about styles. Little wonder then that many students will only produce the five line URL. Many markers of assignments will argue that consistency is the key, but consistency of what? Consistency is still within the context of a style. Students are often expected to rigidly adhere to a style, but is this practical in an information environment that is changing so fast, referencing within a style is never exactly the same depending on which bibliographic management package is being used and why exactly should one style be preferred to another? I have not as yet found an answer as to the rationale for the myriad of styles. It can be argued that referencing style has a right to be as unique as the vocabulary of a discipline, and therefore must be mastered. The Chicago Manual of Style [3] notes that conventions vary according to preferences of disciplines, authors and publishers and needs of a work, but further adds what is the crux:  ‘regardless of the convention being followed, the primary criterion of any source citation is sufficient information either to lead readers directly to the sources consulted, or, for materials that may not be readily available, to positively identify the sources used, whether these are published or unpublished, in printed or electronic form.’ Is this not the essence of referencing and not the order of elements and where full stops and commas go?

Where use of bibliographic management packages such as Refworks and Endnote are required, lecturers/examiners may have to be more flexible in accepting variations of the generalised styles such as APA, MLA, Chicago and so on.

[1] N Paskin. 2010. Digital object identifier (DOI) system. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd ed. 1586
[2]Coghill, AM and Garson, LR. 2006. The ACS style guide: effective communication of scientific information Washington DC: ACS 317
[3] University of Chicago Press. Chicago manual of style 16th ed. 2010 655