On the ideology of citation methods.

I am sure I am not the first person to write on this topic so please feel free to link me to more considered analysis and also to tell me the purpose of citation methods in your discipline.

I began academic life as a historian. As such I learned to work with and to love Chicago. As an editor and author however I have used MLA, and as a student I have used Harvard. Being a dedicated Chicago person I have sworn long and loud about both MLA and Harvard. This post is not about that.

In recent years I have begun to notice that when citation methods are presented to students, they are always presented in discussions of plagiarism. The choice of citation method is always taken for granted as “this is just what the department requires”. There is relatively little discussion of why the choice of a particular citation method in a discipline. The consequence is that students get very anxious about whether they have cited enough or properly and citation becomes functional rather than part of their research process. Below are my own thoughts on why we do what we do with each method. These thoughts may be wrong, but I’ve found that discussing it this way has helped students to see citation as intrinsic to what they write, rather than defensive.

Chicago/footnotes (or if they force you, endnotes): as a historian I am wedded to footnotes. A Chicago footnote gives all the detail you could possibly want; it lets you cite letters, web sites, personal correspondence all in great detail. A standard footnote in my PhD was two lines long

  1. Ie Esther Farquhar to AFSC, 2 February 1938. Committee on Spain, 1938: Correspondence, Murcia, Esther Farquhar (Box 8).

It would have been longer but that (Box 8) unpacks as General Files 1938 Foreign Service – Spain (Correspondence, Murcia, Esther Farquhar – 
Finance) in the Bibliography.

What on earth is the point of this? Well as I found last year, at least one person has followed back these detailed footnotes in order to check if I got things right, to recontextualise what I wrote on the basis of the letters either side, and generally to make a very different use of the material than I did.

Chicago enables you to track material to the source and use it for very different purposes. One way to think of it is that Chicago is the thread you follow back in the research labyrinth. Also one asset of Chicago is that it always reminds you when something was produced and can draw your attention even in secondary works to different editions or versions of something.

MLA in text citation and expansive endnotes: MLA citation looks like this (Shakespeare: 2009, 35) the first time it’s used, then (Shakespeare 45). It is usually placed at the end of the sentence, although Debbie Gascoyne offers this configuration if the edition doesn’t matter:

 (Hamlet I.ii.75) for act, scene and line – applicable to any printed version of the play but with the full details of the specific edition in the wks cited. Your DWJ book would be (Mendlesohn 43) if that was the only work cited, and if I had more than one work by you it would be (Mendlesohn, DWJ 43). Only (43) if I had mentioned your name in the sentence.

(And that as an author I’ve been asked to use all of these and a few more approaches is one reason why I continue to prefer Chicago).

It can drive historians to distraction. What do you mean Shakespeare 2009? How can you cite him as writing in 2009? But of course that is not what it means and it’s very unfair of historians to complain (although as an editor I’ve seen unfortunate mistakes in which an author has come up with a line of influence that would have required time travel, because they didn’t check dates).

MLA citation is there so that you can check the veracity of what was said: did the author get it right? Have they honoured the context and the meaning of what was said? Which edition of a text are they using if there is an argument over which version of a classic they should use (particularly relevant if there one is working with one of several translations, or a text which the author returned to such as an Agatha Christie novel). MLA is less good for a researcher looking for snippets they can use on an entirely different project but it is good if you are engaged in critical argument and you all want to be (literally) on the same page.

MLA does sometimes use endnotes, but they are mostly not for citations: instead they tend to be used for asides and expansions and sometimes for quips.

Harvard in text citations. These look like this (Mendlesohn 2009). They appear immediately after the summary of an idea. So:

It has been argued that there are four primary modes of genre fantasy (Mendlesohn 2009).

Only if you actually quote do you give a page number: It has been argued that there are four primary modes of genre fantasy, “Portal-quest, Intrusion, Immersive and Liminal (Mendlesohn 2009, p. 5).

To users of MLA or Chicago, the first approach is bizarre. It gets even worse if you offer:

Fantasy has been defined as an exercise in belief (Todorov 1975; Attebery 1982; Clute 1995; Mendlesohn, 2009).

What is this about? How are you supposed to track down these ideas given that these are all books?

The answer is that you are not. These are not citations as MLA and Chicago understand them. Instead they are an exercise in situating your argument. It is a sad fact that you can get away in Harvard with not having actually read any of those authors, but only another author who has described their opinions. But this is acceptable because what you are actually doing is establishing to which school of opinion, or methodology or political stance you subscribe, or which school etc. you think has got it terribly wrong. You are identifying your critical family, and the line of descent of your thinking.

If you are a student, I hope that helps. If you are an academic of any discipline or an editor, please feel free to weigh in.

Citation matters, and the ideology of why we cite helps us to get it right.

I want to finish with a quote:

Citation is a politics of desired and sometimes aspirational affiliation that the one who is being cited cannot control. Tao Leigh Goffe, @taoleighgoffe Twitter, October 3 2020

This made me think again about all of the above. When you cite someone consider it part of a conversation with them. Cite with respect, and cite with the understanding that one of the things you are doing when you cite is rendering the hard work of others more visible.

Farah Mendlesohn

4 thoughts on “On the ideology of citation methods.

  1. My first degree was joint honours, and my two departments used different styles – theology and religious studies a footnotes style, like Chicago, and philosophy an in-text style, more like Harvard (qualifying phrases represent the usual local variations). I did not learn to love both. I learned to love footnotes. I think that’s partly about my research style, as described in your post, but also about my writing style and aesthetics. Footnotes not endnotes is also, for me, ideological – it’s about whether you want the reader to be able to follow up easily when they want to, or to be reassured that they could follow up later if they wanted to.


  2. Russell Letson

    I guess things have changed since I spent a couple decades teaching the why as well as how/what of documentation protocols in second-term university comp courses. (I’m more than thirty years out of the classroom.) It was all MLA where I taught, and the approach to documentation I took (which was reinforced by the handbooks we used) emphasized it as a guide back to the sources used, a means of reconstructing the research path of the writer and even of guiding one’s own research–I often recommended mining bibliographies and notes for clues.

    Not that plagiarism avoidance was trivial–it required a lot of positive and negative reinforcement to break beginning students of simply copying swathes of source material. Insisting on minimal quoting–paraphrasing or summarizing wherever possible–pushed them toward absorbing their source materials rather than just dumping in chunks of semi-digested material and calling it a research paper.

    Then there were the inevitable and apparently incurable cheats who thought that they could outsmart me. (They couldn’t. I practically lived in the effing library at paper-grading time.) They and their clueless “but I’ve always done it this way” cousins are still around, cutting and pasting on-line material as though Google didn’t work for teacher as well as student. (This intelligence from my wife, who is still wrangling undergrads.)


  3. I agree with your basic point; however, I think you are hard on MLA, and it’s unfortunate that the examples that you give would not be acceptable in MLA style. For example, Shakespeare, 2009, p. 10 is nonsense. It would be Shakespeare. Name of Play. Act Scene Line, with the precise edition you are using cited in the full works cited. Used properly, it is every bit as flexible and informative as the footnote method; the only real difference is that you have to refer to works cited rather than look at the bottom of the page. I like the notion of putting parenthetical information in footnotes – it helps keep the body on point. The examples you give all look like APA: MLA does not use dates in parenthetical citations or “p” for page.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Norah Carlin

    In editing a collection of over sixty C17 texts for a general audience, I chose/invented a method resembling the Dictionary of National Biography (UK), but I hope it’s an improvement on that, which mostly gives titles only without the precise page, folio or manuscript. Because each text is from a different place or army unit, each has its own largely unique list of background sources, primary and secondary. For some primary sources that are available online (such as the Commons Journal) I have used dates rather than page numbers, and of course the DNB (and ODNB online) are alphabetical so no one needs page numbers to find the articles. I have assumed that my readers will be capable of using an index, but where I have quoted directly or I think my reference may be hard to find, I have provided page numbers. General secondary works that are relevant to most of the texts concerned are listed at the front with their abbreviations. I don’t know what my publisher is going to make of this, he says he is a Chicago man, but I believe in not distracting the reader while at the same time providing enough information for their own research or checking.
    I once asked a psychologist friend what level of backup was required in scientific writing (because I had a student doing a hybrid dissertation). She said, enough information for the experiment to be reproduced and give the same results. I saw its equivalent in history as being enough information for the curious (or argumentative) reader to reach all the sources consulted, though coming to the same conclusion can never be guaranteed!


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