Losing “cite” of what’s important

I’ve been thinking about citation a lot lately. (Chances are, if you aren’t a student and you just read that sentence, you’re already weeping from boredom; but if you are a student, you might have made some sort of frustrated growling sound, or perhaps banged your head against the nearest wall.) I’m in my last semester of grad school in a program where most professors require APA citation (some are flexible – you can use another format as long as you’re consistent about it). As an undergrad I used Chicago style, and in high school I used MLA, so I’ve transitioned a few times, but I was pretty sure I had APA down; after all, attention to detail is what I do. However, two professors this semester have corrected my APA style citations, which makes me think that other professors just weren’t looking that closely – or that they simply didn’t care as much about the details, just that sources were acknowledged somehow and that the writing was good.

Then this morning, I read an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!”  The author, a teacher of writing at James Madison University, says that librarians aren’t able to help students with broader information literacy concerns (such as finding, choosing, and evaluating sources) because they are overwhelmed with anxious students needing help with citations. “What a colossal waste,” he writes. “Citation style remains the most arbitrary, formulaic, and prescriptive element of academic writing taught in American high schools and colleges.” He continues, “Now a sacred academic shibboleth, citation persists despite the incredibly high cost-benefit ratio of trying to teach students something they (and we should also) recognize as relatively useless to them as developing writers.”

The author, Kurt Schick, advocates focusing on the function rather than the form of citation. Most citation styles include the same basic information: author, title, publication date, publisher. It would seem that, with the help of a style guide, it wouldn’t be too hard to put that information in the right order – and it wouldn’t be, if all we were using was books and articles from academic journals. But information can come from a wide range of sources in a wide range of formats, and there are all kinds of exceptions. As long as the core information is there, allowing others to track down the item in question, does it really matter where the periods and parentheses are? Schick argues that no, it doesn’t – not until it’s time to publish. Until then, professors’ and librarians’ and writing center staffs’ time is better spend helping students with essential information literacy and writing skills: “We could…reinvest time wasted on formatting to teach more important skills like selecting credible sources, recognizing bias or faulty arguments, paraphrasing and summarizing effectively, and attributing sourced information persuasively and responsibly.” Students should absolutely understand the importance of acknowledging their own use of others’ words and ideas in their writing; no one is arguing that the concept of citation and attribution isn’t essential. The formatting, however, may not be that important.

Until this sea change takes place, however, the form of citation remains paramount for many professors at many institutions. For anyone required to use APA, I highly recommend the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) APA Formatting and Style Guide. Individual college and university libraries and writing centers may have also prepared their own handouts, guides, and tips for citation. There are also citation tools like RefWorks and Zotero, and databases often have a “cite” tool built in; these can certainly be helpful, but they aren’t perfect, and students will still need to proofread for formatting errors.

Know of any other good citation style guides online? Please share in the comments.

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