Formatting or Fetishism? What do we want from source citing anyway?

“Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?” This is the first sentence in the preface to the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook, published this past spring.

The new edition of the MLA Handbook acknowledges the confusion and futility associated with attempts to provide a definitive citation format for each and every source that could possibly be used in academic writing. In order to cite a book, one had to first identify what kind of book: Print book? Audiobook? E-book? E-book read on a Kindle? Downloaded as a PDF? Downloaded as a PDF and then printed and bound in collection?

Recognizing that no handbook can anticipate new formats and platforms for publishing information, the MLA has created a format-agnostic approach to documentation meant to replace the “forbidding level of detail” that had turned the Handbook into “a reference work… rather than a guide that taught the principles underlying documentation” (MLA Handbook, xi).

There are many stylistic changes between an MLA 7 citation and an MLA 8 citation, however, the role of the citation remains the same - “enabling readers to participate fully in the conversations between writers and their sources” (MLA Handbook, xii). With this in mind, we ask you to reflect for a moment on your own source citation requirements. When it comes to the rules that govern academic style, has as an element of fetishism crept into your own thinking about citations?

The introduction to the MLA Handbook recognizes the importance of rules in documenting sources, but suggests that our use of MLA be guided by three principles:

  1. Cite simple traits shared by most works.
  2. Remember that there is often more than one correct way to document a source.
  3. Make your documentation useful to readers.

As writing handbooks, citation management software, and Library databases make the transition from one version of MLA style to the next, we hope that COD instructors will keep these principles in mind when requiring students to cite their sources - whether MLA, APA, Chicago or another style. Depending on whether a student has access to MLA 7 or MLA 8, a citation may include a URL, or it may not. A citation may read “edited by” or “Ed.” A citation may indicate the day a source was last accessed, or it may not. Perhaps these differences shouldn’t matter much in the college classroom.

For, if we accept that the purpose of a citation is to be useful to readers, then we must accept that variations in citation formatting do not undermine that purpose.

So, how should we, as an academic community, help our students both comprehend the conventions of scholarly communication and manage the challenges of college writing and research?

The COD Librarians offer these suggestions:

  • Be explicit in both your style and source documentation expectations. Do you want students to include a URL for all online sources regardless of whether a DOI is available? Do you expect to see a “last accessed” date included in Web site citations? Tell your students this.
  • Consider grading your students on the utility of their citations rather than their exactitude. A number of studies have shown that an over-emphasis on proper citation may actually be hurting the quality of college writing. Students spend a disproportionate amount of time agonizing over the “correct” way to format a citation when compared to the actual time spent reading and understanding the same sources. We can help lessen student research anxiety by de-emphasizing our focus on “perfect” citations.
  • Address plagiarism concerns via alternative methods. Librarians and scholars believe that our fixation on citation rules stems from our fear of plagiarism. What strategies can you employ that might reduce intentional and unintentional plagiarism? Your liaison librarian can work with you to craft scaffolded assignments, authentic research experiences and other options.

COD Librarians are your partners in teaching and learning. Let us know how we can help you help your students succeed.