Academic citation practices need to be modernized

Researchers and academics spend a lot of time documenting the sources of the ideas, methods and evidence they have drawn on in their own writings. But I want to try and convince you that our existing citation and referencing practices are now woefully out of date and no longer fit for purpose in the modern world. The whole scholarly purpose of citing soruces has changed around us, but our conventions have not recognized the change nor adapted yet. I first set out what’s wrong with what we do now, and then sketch a radical agenda for starting afresh.

Why the core details don’t work any more:
Many elements of the list above are broken or have become pointless in the digital age.

Author names in many British and European sources (book publishers and journals alike) often still include just a single initial. Academics and professionals from these smaller nations have been remarkably slow to appreciate the globalization of knowledge, and hence the need for much more distinctive author names. By contrast, American publishers and journals (more accustomed to a country with 300 million people in it) tend to give the first name in full, and sometimes a second initial as well.

Volume and issue numbers no longer make sense for journals that have moved to continuous publication. Even for journals that retain volume and issue numbers almost all articles are now being published online before (often months or year before) they get a print volume and issue number. The gap between online publication and print issue publication can be substantial.

Page numbers are also irrelevant for many sources now. In ‘early online’ articles the page numbers all start at 1, until the article gets incorporated into a specific volume and issue number, where suddenly the page numbers are changed completely — thereby invalidating any previous page-specific citations. Similarly many ebooks now often do not have page numbers, since they re-size automatically to fit the screen size of the device that readers are using, and to adjust to readers’ preferences for font sizes.
Place of publication for books is also a mostly pointless piece of information. Many big international publishers issue the same books in two or more places at the same time — for instance, in the USA and in the UK or Europe — yet these identical books will be referenced as if they were different. For many smaller publishers it is sometimes a bit of a job to find out where the place of publication actually is — even by searching their websites.

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