<Image Apocalypse by New Man http://www.flickr.com/photos/rnewpol/310013754/>
I have pondered before that referencing in academic papers is an anachronistic practice in a digital age. This came home to me again recently, and my reaction was almost visceral this time. I wrote an article for a journal recently (I know! What was I thinking?), and it inevitably featured lots of online references. I thought I had conformed to the loathed APA referencing style, but was then asked for web pages to specify "(n.p.) when page number not known and (para 4) when the quote comes from a particular paragraph in an online article."
Let's look at those requests: a) it's an online reference so page numbers are rare and b) who ever counts the number of paragraphs on a web page to find a quote? I mean, seriously, come on, does search not exist in this world?
But it's not the absurdity of it that bothers me. Nor is it the pointless, soul-sucking nature of putting references into a very specific format (after all much of life is pointless and soul-sucking). It's the assumptions behind these requests that really antagonise me. Let's look at what I shall lightly term the Four Assumptions of the Publishing Apocalypse:
1) The assumption of power: This says 'yes it may be foolish and anachronistic, but we can demand what we like since we are the publishers and this is your only recognised outlet.'
2) The assumption of quality: This claims that not only are they the only outlet, but their method is the only one appropriate for academic discourse. Failure to use their correct format for referencing implies a lack of academic rigour.
3) The assumption of immutability: This feels there is no need to change. They have begrudgingly accommodated online references (although the assumption of quality emphasises these are to be viewed as substandard), but in their hearts they feel that the paper method is the purest form, and anything else should be a subset of that. Thus we have practices suited to paper transferred online.
4) The assumption of proprietary: If the assumption of power says we can make you do what we like, and the assumption of quality states that we are the custodians of reliability, then this last assumption asserts that thou shall have no other publishing model than us: we own publishing.
Now if you believe any of these assumptions hold true, I congratulate you. For the rest of us, I know it's only referencing, but think about what it says. I value acknowledgement and giving proper credit, but I want digital-friendly ways of doing this, not practices that have been reluctantly twisted to accommodate digital practice and who bear the scars of this transformation all too readily.