References are like airport security checks

Airport Security -- New Rules

<Image by Mike Licht>

This is the penultimate post in my week-long series of reflections on the book writing process (you have been reading them all, right?).

I've moaned before that referencing is largely an anachronistic practice which is located in dealing with physical objects. As I said in that post, there are two main reasons that I can see:

  1. To properly acknowledge the work of others. The act of referencing provides a clear framework for avoiding plagiarism since it positively encourages students to reference others and thus removes ignorance as an excuse.
  2. To allow readers to locate any sources for themselves. This acts as both a check on the author (they can't make up references or misrepresent them), and also promotes knowledge sharing.

The first reason, that of acknowledgement, is obviously valid. But in an online context this is achieved by linking – the link is the acknowledgement, nothing else is required. And indeed, proper acknowledgement is one of the cultural norms of blogging, twitter, etc. We don't have problems with acknowledgement.

But in compiling the references section for my book, I was struck again by the redundancy of official referencing systems. You want to know where a book was published? Really? Isn't Amazon enough? You need a full reference for a quote when the quote itself is the reference in Google? Is an accessed date for every online reference really necessary? 

But I'm a good boy and I have a properly structured reference section of around 230 sources. It seems especially strange as most of my references are online, so I have to find a way of structuring the link into a recognised format, so something like "As Anderson notes.." becomes "Anderson, C. (2008) ‘Freemium math: what’s the right conversion percentage?’ <> [Accessed 11th February 2011]". I'm not sure what additional information is conveyed in the second version of this.

This then goes offline into a printed book, fair enough, and will then go back online. But what bugs me is the supposed supremacy of print in this. For an online reference of a journal article, the URL is not sufficient but rather the full journal reference is required, because that legitimises it.

And we treat referencing as such an immutable practice. This is a classic of example of where the method has become confused with the intention. What we want is to find sources and for that work to be acknowledged. In a print world a standard method of describing these characteristics to enable location made sense. It makes little sense in an online world. 

This reminds me of airport security checks, such as questions around whether you packed yourself or are carrying guns, body checks, etc. Any questioning of the practice is dismissed with very serious concerns about terrorism. Just as querying the reference system is met with furrowed brows and deep sighs about plagiarism and proper scholarship. But like those airport checks this adds delay, is cumbersome and only inconveniences people who are happy to play by the rules anyway. It does nothing to catch the hardcore plagiarists, and doesn't guarantee a reference will still be available any more than a link does. Yet we have no choice and have to persist in it.

If I had the courage of my convictions, here is what I should have submitted for my reference section:



  1. Please place your ideas in the upright and locked position.
    The static reference list is certainly a vestigial organ. The other value would be in that of citation referencing, to know what other papers/books reference yours, but this is hardly enabled via the static snapshot of sanctioned formatted bibliographies (OMG he did not put the period after the title!)
    References are structured information, yet are done typically in this unstructured format. I’d like to see, besides JFGI, maybe being able to link to a living reference source online.

  2. Derek Jones says:

    Absolutely – I have decided to not pursue any PhD nonsense until this is sorted.
    The semantic web must surely come to our rescue soon please…

  3. Totally agree with you all.
    I think that, out of all the time (& energy) that writing a research/dissertation/thesis demands, (much!) more than half squanders in adjusting references rightly and complying with the inevitable standards of referencing – otherwise your job just isn’t academic…
    And I wonder:
    * Wasn’t there software out there (within a ‘great’ choice) to really give a hand on this?
    * Isn’t there a group of academics really concerned by this, which postulate alternative solutions for the (real!) online world?

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