Citation anxiety

I am always very careful to indicate, in guidelines for essays and papers, that I don’t care what bibliographic or citation format my students use. APA, MLA, AAA, NWA … I always say that as long as they pick one format and use it consistently, they’ll be just fine. I have a soft spot for Chicago style (author-date) but I certainly don’t ask anyone to use it. Yet every term, I get at least one student who speaks to me or emails me in concern about bibliographic or citation format. Even after I insist that I have no preference, they just can’t quite be convinced that I won’t deduct grades for failure to conform with an arbitrary set of guidelines, including things like whether to capitalize every word of book titles, or whether to put parentheses around dates. They can’t quite believe me, either, when I tell them that many journals and presses use minute variations of the major styles, so that whatever I do as an author will eventually require professional attention.

Everywhere I’ve taught, I’ve seen this phenomenon, again and again. I also see, again and again, students who are apparently indifferent to serious writing or analytical problems but still get stuck on fine points of some style guide. What gives? Is it really the case that most professors are such sticklers for formatting issues that it is rational for students to be so concerned? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. Alternately, maybe citation style is something that seems more objective than other, more significant aspects of paper-writing. When you’re unsure of other issues, or know you have problems with them, hanging on to the one thing that you know you can get just right is a security blanket. Whatever else may be wrong with your paper, at least you got the citations right. I don’t know about this either, though – if it were really true, wouldn’t more students actually use a single style correctly and consistently, even after inquiring?

So, colleagues and students, what do you think? Is citation anxiety ubiquitous? If so, is it reasonable? And what can be done about it?

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

11 thoughts on “Citation anxiety”

  1. I personally use MLA unless told otherwise, and I try not to worry too much about it. However, I have had professors who were big sticklers for citation format, and the thought of losing points on a paper because of something unrelated to the topic of the paper (and, in my opinion, trivial and arbitrary) does sometimes lead me to be somewhat anxious.

    1. When you say they were sticklers: did they actually deduct a significant amount of points for incorrect formatting, or did they merely produce a style guide / required style but not actually enforce it?

    1. Not at all! I do check a) whether their works cited have all the relevant info; b) whether their in-text citations match their works cited (nothing missing or extraneous); c) alphabetical ordering. Even then I can’t see imposing a heavy penalty if the student seems to have made an honest effort.

  2. I do take points off for failure to cite properly because we have a lot of students who come in thinking that to just give an author’s last name is enough of a nod. Our department mandates using the Chicago Manual of Style and our recommended student handbook shows them how to cite a source in that style for virtually any kind of research item they might use.

    I’m willing to give students a break if they’ve been pretty thorough in a non-regulation style, but I tend to take failure to follow the style guide mandate in the same fashion that Van Halen used to use their brown M&M clause: if they find their venue ignored that clause, they can be pretty sure they’ve missed other important requirements of the contract.

    1. How much of a stickler are you? I mean, not major issues like failing to put a journal title, but things like, say, if someone puts the year of publication in parentheses, or if they put Journal of Archaeological Science 21(2): 247-69 instead of 21, no. 2: 247-269? I guess what I’m wondering is, do you find it worthwhile to devote that much time and energy to such issues?

  3. As a junior in college I still have distinct memories of my high school English teachers imprinting upon me a certain abject terror at the thought of transgressing the rules of citation (MLA, in this instance). I’ve found that at college the rules are far more relaxed and rather inconsistent with the image spun in high school: that of academic damnation for an errant semicolon or some other crime of improper format. However, the paranoia under which we were conditioned to operate is difficult to simply slough off.

  4. One word: Zotero. Citation anxiety will soon be a thing of the past.

    It is unbelievable that students have to factor in time for getting the punctuation right for the particular style their instructor (or school) has chosen. As you say (I think), the principles behind citing are vital: correct attribution, being able to track the genealogy of ideas. What it looks like is secondary, and going to be of decreasing importance anyway with the rise of DOIs/PIDs.

    Zotero allows students to change their references from MLA to Chicago or any other of the thousands of available styles at the click of a button. Plus it helps them keep track of their reading history. And it allows them to take notes. And they can collaborate via group libraries. It works whether they’re Mac or Windows or Linux persons, and whether they’re using MS Office or OpenOffice or NeoOffice.

    It wasn’t there when I was an undergrad, I note with some regret; which is why I’m spreading the word now. Tell your students about it!

    1. Mark: I absolutely agree that Zotero is fantastic, and in fact have posted about it earlier: I teach bibliographic research methods in almost every course I offer, and always mention it as a useful option for Firefox users. The trouble is that depending on which database you use, the info you pull into Zotero can be very sketchy, resulting in the well-known garbage-in, garbage-out problem.

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