Suffering from Citation Paranoia?

By Cate Foster

You’re not the only one. Trust me – just about every scholar on campus has a fear of improperly citing a source. Kurt Schick makes some excellent points in his blog post Citation Obsession? Get Over It!. However, I think perhaps he’s over-reacting just a bit.

Okay, so I need to make a confession right from the start. I am a word nerd. No, seriously, I am really a word nerd to the highest degree. So much so that I will admit to you right now that I have been known to read the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook for fun. I even have my own copies of each sitting on my personal bookshelf.

I like citation styles. I do. I’ve conducted workshops and created (I hope) user-friendly guides for students about various styles used on campus. Citation styles appeal to my love of language and organization.

As much as I enjoy language in all its stylistic forms, I believe there is a tendency to place too much emphasis on citation styles, especially at the undergraduate level. That being said, however, I think that Schick is being a wee bit reactionary when he says it’s a “colossal waste” to incorporate the use of citations styles into academic writing. Is it formulaic? Of course.  But arbitrary? No. There is a reason for all the infuriatingly nit-picky and seemingly arbitrary rules in each style.

There is a lot of information to convey in a citation, and consistency ensures that a reader can locate the necessary information. However, we all need to remember that the various citation styles were developed long before the internet came into being. The need to properly cite a YouTube video or to distinguish between a newspaper article found online or one in an honest-to-goodness paper newspaper was not necessary when the various citation styles were first developed. As the possibilities for locating sources grow, so does the need for standardization of citing these new sources of information.

Navigating the path of citation styles can be tricky, but we mustn’t let the minutiae of citations  get in the way of the actual writing. Writing is a scary endeavor, and we frequently find any excuse to get out of writing assignments. I, for one, know that my kitchen was always cleanest the day before a big paper was due. Citing sources and formatting a bibliography can be just another way to avoid the actual writing of a paper. Writing a clear, cohesive paper is a much more satisfying accomplishment than knowing whether or not “p.” is used before a page number in MLA style (it isn’t, by the way – that’s a convention used in APA).

Citing sources is a way for scholars of all levels to engage in an ongoing conversation about a given topic. It is a way to honor the work of others and acknowledge the inspiration gleaned from research. But citations and their respective styles are merely a part of academic writing, and it’s a well-written, cohesive paper that is the ultimate goal.

So, citations and their appropriate style are not something you can ignore. Every paper is written within a given discipline and for a specific audience, and this dictates the citation style you choose to use (or are told to use). Every scholar must learn the rules and language of academic writing. Citation styles dictate that basic structure in academic papers, and therefore render their formulaic nature necessary.

Don’t get too wrapped up in the ins and outs of citation styles. Have an understanding of the basics; know what information is required. Then, if you end up using a source for which you cannot find an example, use your best critical thinking skills to create your citation and move on with your paper. And if you’re still stuck, give us a call or stop by. We can help with that.

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