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4.2 Referencing styles

In 2009 Alec Gill wrote in the Times Higher Education:

“Some academics have a "fetish" for their chosen style of referencing source material, and students can be inhibited by lecturers’ conflicting advice on which style to use. These were among the findings of a symposium earlier this month at the University of Bradford focused on referencing and writing. One conclusion was that there are far too many referencing styles – there are well over 3,000 esoteric ways of citing source material. What purpose is served by all the archaic typography? The question was asked: "why not have one standard system?"

The evidence from focus groups that the TELSTAR project ran with students very much supported this with students sometimes unclear which referencing style they should use, concerned they would be penalized (marked down) for using the wrong style, and asking that there should be more consistency in the referencing styles they were asked to use across different courses or modules. Quotes from the student focus groups include:

“if you don’t do it right in the final ECA [End of Course Assignment] you’re going to be penalized for it”

“whatever I’d been doing before which was a system of footnotes … was not what was required on the course I’ve just done … the issue for me this year was trying to move from one [citation style] to the other”

“when you look at the citation style they [the course] use, it’s an absolute shambles in that it’s subtly inconsistent with itself”

In a 2009 blog post James Atherton argues that we are in danger of paying too much attention to aspects of referencing that are not that important:

So I am puzzled by this disproportionate attention paid to referencing. I am particularly puzzled by the insistence that it always be corrected. We emphasise the quality of feedback we give to our students, and we are keen that they should read it, discuss it with us in tutorial, and learn from it. And of course that will include correction of poor referencing practice, up to a point. What does obsessional attention to every detail of punctuation in a bibliography say about what we think is important about an essay or project? Indeed, what other aspect of marking should get less attention in order that this can get more? As I remember, the examiner suggested that work could even be referred until it was re-submitted with an immaculate list of references; what does that say about what is important?

While there is no doubt that when writing for publication, there may be a requirement to use a specific referencing style (for example, the referencing style guidelines for ‘Science’ are given at http://www.sciencemag.org/about/authors/prep/res/refs.dtl), the requirements for students should be considered carefully, and communicated to them clearly.

Alec Gill proposes a ‘unified academic referencing system’ to simplify practice across academia. While integrating reference management tools into a learning environment consider what styles you wish or need to support, and whether it is possible to agree on a small number of styles that can be used across the institution.

A final point on referencing styles is that reference management software will work on a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ basis. If you generate references from a structured form of the reference, you must ensure that the correct information is recorded in the correct places within structured format.

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