Experience at the library enquiry desk quickly reveals that many students arrive at university with little or no understanding of referencing, who when confronted on arrival at university with the horrible consequences of the terrible crime of plagiarism become somewhat obsessed with this aspect of their work. Trying to understand why they need to reference resources at the same time they must master the intricacies of a specific referencing system just starting their academic courses is an unnecessary burden on students. Its impact on students is worrying. Many students do not understand how citations and reference lists relate. Most have never seen a printed journal and cannot understand the concept of a serial publication being bound into volumes, parts and pages. Some become obsessed with the grammar, syntax and formatting of references, and come to worry that a misplaced punctuation mark will somehow lead to a charge of academic misconduct. The structure of the literature, knowledge of which is required to know how to reference any particular resource, is alien to most students, yet much of this structure could easily be dispensed with. There is very little discernible difference between many ebooks and reports, blogs, and magazines. Journals that are now only published online no longer need to retain the traditional serial format. This only serves to get in the way by delaying when articles can receive their full published metadata, while everything could, and arguably should, simply be published online in chronological order.
The overarching layers of complexity and idiosyncratic, inconsistently applied rules that have accumulated as traditional referencing systems have developed over the years are a source of considerable anxiety for students. As a result, there is a growing trend towards devoting a disproportionate effort to formulating grammatically and typographically perfect references. Some students fear that even minor punctuation errors in the formatting of references might comprise plagiarism and academic misconduct. Many students clearly invest more time, effort and worry in referencing an assignment correctly than on the body of the assignment itself. It was never the intention of referencing systems to be burdensome or to complicate retrieval of the information sources listed in bibliographies, yet the referencing tail now threatens to wag the scholarly dog.
Students and researchers would both benefit from re-examining the purpose of referencing. What is needed is for the theoretically simplest referencing system possible to be devised: one that works the same way in handwritten notes as in type and that can be modified in a predictable manner to encompass any conceivable new resource type or publishing format; a system based not on specific rules but only principles, so that unlike traditional prescriptive referencing systems, its formats would be infinitely extensible and flexible and its subsequent development would need very little controlling oversight. I have drafted a starting point for the conversation over what this system might look like and how it could function. I suggest that since institutions are unlikely willingly to adopt a system they did not have a hand in creating, that such a system should be designed collaboratively by schools, colleges and higher education and research institutions, and then adopted on as wide a scale as possible and at all levels of education, so that students learn to reference in increasing detail as they grow and develop as learners. By adopting the system for all preprint drafts, institutional presses and repositories, academic staff could save time re-formatting references for submission to each journal, perhaps eventually leading to calls for a standard submission format.
Adopting such a system across the education sector would allow students to focus on the content of their assignments, confident that referencing is intuitive and not a stressful process. Agreement on and adoption of such a system across academia and scholarly publishing would simplify the academic submission process and save a great deal of work reformulating references on submission to different publications and checking that the strictures of each different referencing standard have been met. Students and researchers would both benefit from re-examining the purpose of referencing. If adopted across academic publishing, it could save the effort of reformulating references before submitting works to different publishers and journals.
If no other change is made, existing referencing systems could be made much less stressful for students if it were remembered that the purpose of referencing is to direct the reader reliably to information resources used. While consistency is aesthetically attractive, there seems no good reason for insisting that students follow every precise instruction in a referencing standard. Formally relaxing the prevailing scrutiny of referencing form and returning the focus to the content of academic work would be a big step forward and a great relief to students.
About the Author
David worked briefly in further education libraries before joining Portsmouth University Library as a Metadata & Procurement Librarian, during which time he taught cataloguing and classification on an MA course at the University of Brighton. Now a chartered librarian working as the Assistant Librarian (Promotions) in Portsmouth University Library, David manages the development and delivery of Library promotions and communications, including managing the library's social media channels and assisting with web development.
Outside the office, David is a member of the #uklibchat team and Web Officer for library accessibility consortium CLAUD. David publishes occasional journal and blog articles on librarianship, ranging from sharing and promoting best practice and suggesting new ways of working to critically questioning accepted practices with a view to making libraries and academia better for everyone.
Disclaimer: All views expressed are my personal opinion and may not be the same as those of my employer or any other party.
If you're interested in finding out more about this topic, a longer version of this blog post can be found here: http://www.liblog.port.ac.uk/blog/2019/01/23125/