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Against Citation: A Librarian's Concern
Posted On November 12, 2019
Why cite your sources?  Librarians have long advocated for good citation practices, and we have done so for very valid reasons.  The lifecycle of knowledge generation and knowledge transfer depends on referencing the ideas that came before, responding to them, critiquing or supporting them, and acknowledging their roles in the evolution of new ideas.  We are not against that.

Indeed, as evidenced by many libguides (and non-Springshare library guidance pages) on many library sites (see, for example, Brown University, MIT, Texas Woman’s University, The University of Southern Mississippi, and Zayed University), librarians care a great deal about proper citation, teaching proper citation as a value, and guiding users to good sources for their own creation of good citations—in many styles.

Now we find ourselves looking at the just-published seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which provides us a moment to consider some basics.  In full color, and in your choice of hardback, paperback, or spiral-bound, you can feel relieved that this manual is worth the price—after all, the American Psychological Association (APA) has saved paper by rethinking the two-space rule after each sentence.  (I’ll keep using that one through Christmas, though, myself.)

Alphabet Soup

The number of citation styles has increased as disciplines have become more specialized.  There are the acronyms: ACS, APA, AMA, ASA, CSA, CSE, MHRA, MLA (Modern Language Association), and MLA (Medical Library Association).  And the others: Bluebook, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard, and perhaps hundreds of subtle variations of all of these styles in subdisciplines and in the form of house styles particular to one journal or one publisher.  Have you ever gotten an article rejected from a journal that uses APA, then sent it to another journal that uses some futzy variant of Harvard?  Then you’ll know that it takes a lot of time and concentration, beyond that spent on substantive revisions to content and structure, to get all of your semicolons in order; for a new editor.

And the disciplines take pride in this.  Beyond actually being a good anthropologist and being good at writing about anthropological notions, anthropologists may enjoy knowing that their subdisciplines cite with AAA, a Chicago-style variation, with its deliberate differences from the sociologists’ ASA style guide (it has its own cultural history and socially constructed power dynamics, you know).  They may get a thrill from the small differences, the spacing, or the en or em dashes, even as any given manuscript on, say, the cultural attributes of water well usage in Sana’a, Yemen, may Venn diagram into urban anthropology or sociology of the environment, and could (with strategic attention to whether the authors cite more of Arjun Appadurai or more of Bruno Latour) be publishable in either discipline.

This citation-style fussiness is not yet aware that it has been obviated.

Beyond Name, Date, and Place

Let’s start with a question: What is essential to a citation?  Writer Two needs to know that Writer One wrote a thing, needs to record what Writer One wrote (whether by quote or paraphrasing), and needs to be able to direct readers to the work of Writer One.  That’s it.

The rest is mascara and fancy socks.  Making these three basic attributes of citation standardized has been useful inasmuch as it has increased readers’ ability to access the work of Writer One.  But standardization has made life more difficult for Writer Two, given the time and attention it requires.

The reasons for the particularities of citation and style conventions are historically good.  Readers need standards, such that they can quickly understand the difference between a publisher and an author or between a date of publication and the number of an issue within a volume.  Place of publication was very important in the days when one may have traveled or requested a print catalog of books or journals—readers may have needed place names, too, to distinguish between publishers with similar names.  There was at one time (for someone) a need to know that John Blackie published books about the railway and did so at Warwick Square in London.  But the importance of any of these conventions—say, having an author’s name before any date of publication—becomes less important the more findable and accessible the cited work becomes.  The conventions are there because they have served the efficiency of access, and they should remain there only to the degree that readers remain aided by them.

New Forms of Identification

These days, librarians and publishers have developed a wide range of useful tools to help standardize records of information sources and to make these sources much more efficiently accessible than they have ever been before.  DOIs, static permalinks in bibliographic databases, WorldCat’s authorities, Taxonomic Serial Numbers, ISBNs, ISSNs: All of these point to particular objects at various levels, from organisms to species and genera or from articles to journals and other serials.  In uniquely identifying an individual item or thing, they make the need for any one particular citation style redundant (like, totally redundantly superfluous).  

Mattereum, a blockchain startup pushing beyond cryptocurrency, is building a platform that seeks to allow you to uniquely identify your stuff, its multidimensional values, and the transactions through which your stuff becomes other stuff of value.  When I write the name Fatima Al-Fihri (and hereby link to her identity record), you know I mean to reference the founder of the first university and not, say, a random Instagram food stylist with that same name.  

If I “quote this passage,” you have all you need, although I will still add a parenthetical note here, which is fleshed out in the References section at the end of this NewsBreak, to help you find your way (Augustine, long time ago).  Now, if you are concerned about science today, at the end of this sentence too is a way-finder for you; in this case, it’s a genetic marker to help you read better, maybe (Ketterer, et. al., 2016).  See also thinglinks, arphids, and the kirkyan: The ability to uniquely identify and cite ideas, processes, and things is often discussed—and has been for some time.

Let us throw open the old, specialized discipline-centric conventions to the generalists, to the librarians, to the hackers, and to the powers that make all content more smartly standard and findable in this, our new century.  Let us free our writers and researchers to get on with writing, researching, and citing for the sole purpose of connecting us directly with cited texts.  “Save the time of the researcher,” as S.R. Ranganathan might have noted in his Five Laws of Library Science, had he gotten around to it.


Augustine, Saint. Long time ago. 2007 edition. Overwrought asynchronous argument with “Faustus”. ISBN: 978-1-56548-264-7.

Ketterer, S., and others. 2016. “Inherited diseases caused by mutations in cathepsin protease genes.” (Once you use the DOI and go read it, you may then spend time learning all about the publisher, the journal, its editors, and whatever else you want to know that isn’t strictly relevant to the enzymes in question.)

The author has been uniquely identified by ISNI in this way and by OCLC in this way. Cite as you please, if it pleases you at all.

Woody Evans (@quarrywork) is a librarian from Mississippi who now lives in Texas. A longtime contributor to NewsBreaks and Information Today, his work has also appeared in JukedMondo 2000, Boing Boing, Motherboard, American Libraries, and others. He is the author of Building Library 3.0 and Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, one of which is aging well. For fun and pain he rows and meditates. 

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