Is academic referencing anachronistic?

One of the hallowed practices we teach students is how to properly reference sources. This is deeply entrenched in academic practice – we often give explicit marks for it in assessment, teach it as a key skill, give explicit methods to follow and demand it in publication. As such you could view it as a cornerstone of the enculturation process that is higher education – we are bringing people in to the culture of higher education and referencing is one means of exhibiting your membership of this club.

Let’s think about why it’s important. 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.

Reason 1 is still valid obviously, now more than ever perhaps. But reason 2? Isn’t that a pre-Google motivation? The reason why I think it’s worth raising it is that the necessity for strict referencing guidelines and their structure is determined by the need to locate physical objects in a library. Also there is an inherent bias in these guidelines towards a) text and b) traditional forms of publication. The attempts to incorporate online resources often seem clumsy.

So why do we need it anyway? If I quote from a paper, I can either link to it, or you can simply find it by Googling the quote. Search replaces memory – I don’t need to remember where I saw something, just what I saw, since I can always find it again. While teaching people to properly acknowledge the work of others is essential (and here I think blogging provides a very useful example of good practice), increasingly I feel that the need to master the Harvard (or whatever) referencing method is anachronistic. We should teach the important of the process , ie that you must properly acknowledge work and make it easy for people to locate.


  1. Hmm, that puts too much impetus on the reader, I think.
    Is it reasonable that I should have to search on every quote to find your source and whether it’s a “valid” source or something misquoted from a myspace page? By citing your sources I can find out, without leaving your paper, whether you have generally used credible references. Linking to it saves me trying to find it on a search engine (and weeding through the bad matches that you’ve already weeded through).
    Also it flags the issue immediately if your online source has gone missing, which is not uncommon.

  2. It is becoming farcical – for lots of references it’s a waste of time to follow them properly: you’re faster just searching for the the title. And when you know the writer was almost certainly looking at an electronic version themselves, and instead of simply cut-and-pasting the URL in, they had to laboriously hand-type the formal reference – introducing errors (some of the time) … what a waste of effort.
    It does amuse me that we teach students – from level 1 through to Masters – that they really must do their references absolutely right (and all in a consistent format). But when it comes to real papers, so long as the referencing is roughly right … it’s just not really that important a factor in getting it accepted for publication compared to how good a paper it is (and who wrote it). If even practising academics don’t need to get it perfect …

  3. The fuss about referencing in the humanities seemed incredibly bizarre to me when I first encountered it. In mathematics, we never got taught how to reference things – we just did it and I never remember anybody having any issues with it. It’s also much less effort to cite a proof of something than to write out the proof yourself so it’s in your interest to reference.
    You can’t usually google for a theorem quite as easily as a quote – though given the title and author, google scholar will usually find all the other info you need to find the paper in a library or online (which leads to the interesting question of whether you want all of academia to become dependent on google scholar). Not everything is online yet too of course, books and theses being the most obvious examples, but there are still journals which don’t have their complete archives online.

  4. Doug – I agree it is farcical, it’s like an agreed con we play – we read it online and then spend ages finding the ‘real’ reference to pretend we went to a library and tracked it down.
    Juliette – true, not everything is online, so you may want to have a format for these, but let’s face it, most stuff is online now, so why are we using a system based on paper?
    Sylvia – some of what you say is true, but increasingly we have to get used to a variety of sources which aren’t pre-approved. Take blogs for instance, are we going to not use these because they aren’t part of a peer-reviewed quality process? So the emphasis will be on the reader to an extent.

  5. I edit the JIME journal and the fact is no one can get references quite right. This is very obvious to me as the JIME software automatically links the references into the text. It will only do this if they at least have the names and dates correct – but it is rare for any paper to have this completely correct.
    On the otherhand of course the papers have references and links that go out of date, but they are not useless because we can Google to get the best current effort. I have thought about working my way through making furl versions or finding best results to archive – but in the spirit of Google Knowledge (gratuitous self promotion of my blog) I think there is a lot to be said for leaving it to the reader.
    (BTW This does not mean I will stop chasing my authors to fix their references. At least not yet.)

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