Good point, where did you find that?

The history of our citation styles and the reasons behind them

In college, the relief brought on by finishing a research paper is short-lived. When the final word is typed, and after a well deserved stretch, the student must turn his attention to chasing down those stray citations.

The hours spent trying to replace all of the “find page numbers” in an essay and looking up the proper citation style format — italicized or in quotes, comma or period? Perhaps an underline too — has led all students to a significant amount of hair pulling. Why is this required, and how did it get to be such a pain?

Having to cite one’s sources is a fairly new phenomenon. Looking to the ancients, the father of history, Herodotus, and the fifth century B.C. historian Thucydides, felt free to fabricate full speeches and attribute them to real people. There was little care for proper quotations and accurate attribution.

When studying the 14th century, one used to turn first to the chronicler Jean Froissart, but, with the 19th century discovery of a chronicle by Jean le Bel, it became clear how liberally Froissart plagiarized from le Bel, who wrote before him. Froissart made one mention of his debt to le Bel, but it would have been uncharacteristic for him to have put quotation marks around the several passages which were copied word for word.

This is by no means a criticism. For these writers, history was history, and it was everyone’s to read and copy. With the rise of modern scholarship, a systematic method of tracking sources and attributing cited work became desirable. Beyond adding a degree of honesty, it helps perpetuate the best work and let the worst fall to the side. It therefore enhances our knowledge, and allows authors a chance engage in wider conversations.

The development was needed, and perhaps long overdue by the 20th century, which is where one finds the genesis of what we recognize today as style guides. There are three methods which predominate today, and will be immediately recognizable to any university student.

In 1883, the Modern Language Association of America was founded, henceforth known as the MLA. This abbreviation will summon dread for students who remember five paragraph essays from their high school tenure. Although founded in the 19th century, the MLA did not begin to publish their style guide until 1951, in the form of the MLA Style Sheet.

Upon the release of this citation guideline, the MLA admonished that “scholars intending to submit manuscripts to any of these journals or presses will save editorial time, trouble and expense by following pertinent instructions. They may also save themselves the trouble of retyping a manuscript acceptable in every respect except for its form.” Although the typewriter age has past, this advice is still pertinent today, and 65 years on, English majors waited with giddy anticipation for the release of the MLA’s most recent iteration, the MLA Eight, which debuted in 2016.

In 1929, a group of psychologists had similar aspirations. With the intent to “codify the many components of scientific writing to facilitate clear communication and enable psychologists and scholars in other social and behavioral sciences to enhance the dissemination of knowledge in their respective fields,” the American Psychological Association Style was born, more commonly known as the APA.

Today, APA dominates fields of social science — disciplines such as political science, economics and psychology — but, in 1937, a young dissertation secretary named Kate Turabian at the University of Chicago must have found the method wanting, and thus set out to prepare her own guidelines. Characterized by footnotes and finding its home at the history department in Arter Hall, this style guide has come down to us today under the shorthand names of Chicago, or more simply, Turabian.

But these are only the big three. There are hundreds — maybe thousands —  of different forms of citations. Considering AMA, Harvard Style, IEEE, APSA, and the Oxford Guide, one may think that having so many different guidelines is pedantic, and it makes no difference which is employed. But these individuals would be surprised to discover the cult following many of these styles have garnered. This editor has encountered more than one chemistry student who would happily go to the mat in defense of ACS. Even most major publications like the New York Times invent their own rules.

But it should not be ignored that there is a method to most of the madness, as the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning notes on its website. For instance, MLA’s in-text citations are preferred in English departments because they immediately draw attention to the author being cited, which is most important when evaluating literature.

For APA, the author of the work being cited is secondary to the year the scholarship was created, and therefore, the date gets more of an emphasis. Chicago hides the information in the form of footnotes at the bottom of the page — or, to the great frustration of the student in search of primary sources, in the back of the book in the form of endnotes — to make for easy reading, and to avoid listing long archival locations in the middle of sentences.

In recent years, there has even been an influx of new softwares which aggregate and format full citations for students, making the creation of bibliographies far quicker and easier than they used to be for those who composed their comps on typewriters. But along with these innovations, the utility of using a style guide remains as important today as ever before.

Even here at The Campus — much to this editor’s frustration — the Associated Press Style book serves a de facto Bible. And no matter how great the temptation is to add Oxford commas to the stories that go to print — every now and then, one happily slips by the gaze of the copy-editor —  it is known that it is forbidden because it allows for quicker reading of news articles, and, for better or worse, that is the way it will always be.