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Wanted: A Simple Citation System

I was recently preparing a handout of useful resources to give out at a conference presentation, and was thinking about which citation style to use for the recommended reading. At this point it struck me that all the citation styles I’ve ever used are ridiculously complicated and confusing, and none of them take account of two simple facts:

  1. Almost every academic today has access to the Internet.
  2. Almost everything that is available in print is also either available online or catalogued online.

This means that when you cite a source in a paper, you don’t need to include all the information necessary to write to a bookseller or library requesting a copy. All you need is the information necessary to pick it out in an Internet search.

Let’s apply this principle to the kind of information that is normally included in a citation.

  1. The title is the most important thing. You might not want it in running text, but it needs to be there in your references page.
  2. The author is also pretty damned important. The only reason I wouldn’t make this #1 is that some texts don’t have named authors, in which case …
  3. Names of journals, newspapers, websites etc. are useful. For journals, the volume/number system is probably still useful, even if it’s an anachronism.
  4. DOIs and URLs can be useful but are usually not vital. It’s nice to have a clickable URL, but if it’s online, finding it will only take a few seconds. The one time a URL or some other unique indicator like a DOI is needed is when there are different versions of a text floating around the Internet, and it’s important to specify which one you are referring to. This will probably happen once or twice in your entire academic career.
  5. Dates are useful. This is particularly true in science and engineering. Aside from indicating how up-to-date information is, dates are sometimes  used as shorthand for titles. Dates are also useful to distinguish between editions which may have different page numbers (assuming there are page numbers at all). News articles should naturally have precise dates.
  6. Page numbers are not as important as people think. They are worth throwing in, but so much text now has no pages that they are not worth getting excited about. Specify pages if you want to, but don’t bother putting the page numbers of journal articles or book chapters in your references page.
  7. The publisher is not very important. If you really want to know who published something, google it.
  8. The place of publication is so laughably unimportant, it is amazing that citation formats still require it. I mean come on – do you really need to know that a book was published in Amsterdam? Are you going to go over to Amsterdam to ask them for a copy? Some citation styles even require a place of publication for an e-book, goddamit!
  9. The medium is not as important as people think. The MLA may think they’re being hip by requiring things like “Web” or “PDF” or even “Tweet” in a citation. They’re not. Text is text, whether it’s on paper or on Facebook. Most sources exist in both print and electronic forms. The only time the medium is important is if it is a non-text medium, like music or film.
  10. Authors and titles should appear as they do in the publication. The only exceptions are (a) referring to authors by surname first; (b) putting titles that are all in capitals into title case. Other than that, don’t mess with authors and titles. I’m talking to you, APA.
  11. The convention of using italics for complete works and quotation marks for parts of works is actually quite good. After all, there a difference between “I love Emma” and “I love Emma.”

This would leave us with the following.


LeGuin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968.

Chapter in an edited book

Turner, Robin. “‘How do you know she’s a woman?’ Features, prototypes and category stress in Turkish kadın and kız.” In June Luchjenbroers (ed.) Cognitive Linguistics:  Investigations Across Languages, Fields, and Philosophical Boundaries. 2006.

(I really wrote that, BTW.)

Newspaper article

“Randy Romeo Russ in Russian Threesome” The Sun. 01 Apr. 2010.

Journal article

Kugelschreiber, Hans. “Counterfactuals in Bhutanese Cleft Sentences.” Journal of South Asian Sociolinguistics 24.2.


The Terminator (Film). 1984.

I could give a load of other examples, but I’m sure you get the idea. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a citation style like this? If you think so, make this go viral. Link to it, like it on Facebook, or better still come up with some ideas of your own, Maybe someday someone at the MLA, APA or whatever will say “Hey, that’s not a bad idea!”

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