Why are there so many citation styles?


This is what a professor looks like. The person in the picture is not affiliated with Fidus Writer and we do not know what citation style he uses. Photo by: Juraj Kubica

Are there really good reasons to have so many styles. Those of us with a more humorous view of human society will conclude that likely anyone who has been at university too long will eventually have to develop small hobbies around which to center one’s life, as the initial task set out to solve—understand the world and help improve it—will with all likelihood be something unachievable for any nerdy professor type character. One of the more popular hobbies of this kind seems to be the obsession with citation styles. Somethign that seems extremely simple to the first semester student, suddenly takes up books of 1000s of pages once he hits graduate school. The consequencies are not just positive. I am sure many students who were forced to use citation styles for no apparent reason will have a similar analysis. Even The Onion published a satirical piece on a war that had supposedly broken out between copyeditors on which style was the better one. Nevertherless, there are some very important reasons why the field of citing correctly is very important for academics. Judy Hunter of Grinnell College mentions three main reasons why citing is important for academics:

  • – because academics are all about ideas, and it is important to show who came up with them,
  • – to make sure that the person who came up with an idea is sufficiently credited,
  • – so that academics in the future can track how an idea evolved over time

Accepting that there are some vali reasons to use citations, at least to some degree is the first step toward understand why citation styles matter. And if one searches really well, one can find that there may be some good reasons why a certain citation style may make sense for some and not for other. This guide from the University of Houston points out that “Academic disciplines each emphasize different elements in citations because it highlights the most important aspect of a discipline’s research. For example, research in the sciences often needs to be up-to-date and timely, so often the date is emphasized in the citation. However, in the humanities, the date is not as important as the author and source.” This sounds like a valid argument, but it would still only explain the need for a maximum of two different citation styles. At Fidus Writer, while starting to implement citation styles we started wondering — why so many? Shouldn’t one style be good enough for print? And are traditional citation styles really the way to go in the case of documents people read on the computer?

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