So, to deviate from my normal theme of computer related articles I thought I would write about something that I ponder quite often. That is the issue of citing sources within a paper. Typically this comes up the most within a research paper, but certainly citations can be used in papers of all types. What exactly do I ponder? Well… I wonder why the world of citations is so difficult.
Let me take some time now to point something out before I go in to the rest of the this post. I think that it is of the highest importance that sources be cited in a paper. There are many reasons sources should be cited. I 100% believe that students and professional researchers alike should be completely honest about where they got all of their information from! Please keep this in mind as you read the rest of the post, or I know I will get comments of the form “So you don’t think you should give credit to the original authors !?!?”. That is NOT what I am saying 🙂 .
So, back to the main topic here. I think that it is too challenging to put citations in to a paper. There is nothing intuitive about it. Arguably the task is not hard, but it IS quite time consuming. I know there are websites and programs that will automatically cite things for you, but alas this does not always satisfy the stubborn professor that insists every period must be in exactly the correct spot. I, personally, am a huge fan of LaTeX and the citation package known as BibTeX. It does a fabulous job of keeping track of your in-text citations as well as your references page at the end.
First of all lets consider how many different ways there are to simply formats ones citations. Off the top of my head I can think of: MLA, Chicago, and APA. That is only the tip of the iceberg though. Enjoy this great Wikipedia article which lists quite a few other styles of citation. Why do we need so many different ways to cite things? I see no compelling reason. Basically when you cite a piece of information you are trying to indicate where you found the information, and who the original author/creator of the work was. Now, to help someone else find the same information might involve several parts. The point here is that there are really only two “simple” things that citations are meant to accomplish it doesn’t seem like there is a worthwhile need to have a boatload of other styles.
My second point of consideration is that teachers need not be so strict about dealing with a poorly formatted citation. I have lost the difference of a + or – part of a letter grade in the past just because a period or comma was out of place. No surprise there… the styles are so complex to follow, and so seemingly random at times that it is quite easy to miss silly things like that. Ultimately I don’t believe I have ever failed to indicate where I got my information from and the author of the information. Therefore why should I be deducted points? It is not as though missing a period or comma in the list of sources at all effects the previous content of my paper. Perhaps my teachers are just looking for arbitrary criteria to grade on? I suppose I will never know.
This then brings me to my third issue with citations. Why are they so insanely long winded? You need to practically buy a separate book to be able to cite things in the MLA properly! That is insane! Let us not forget that the point here is indicating where the information came from.
So what do I propose? Well first of all I think we need ONE and only ONE form of paper citations, peroid! Secondly, this form of citation should be able to adapt easily to new forms of media, but not be overly complex such that you need an entire manual just to cite things properly. Finally, my third point, is that professors and teachers should not be so strict about making sure every last peroid is in place. IT DOESN’T MATTER. If the student has shown where everything came from in a decent looking manner there should be no fuss! Concentrate on what they actually wrote, and not how well they can follow an over specified format 🙂 . After all, we already have a discipline where people follow overly specified formats, computer science 😉 .
If anything, switching to this sort of system would make it easier for everyone. Easier for people who need to cite sources because there would just be a single format to learn. Also it would be easier for people who are reading any material with citations because it would be uniform across the board 🙂 .