February 17, 2018

Citation Fixation | Office Hours

Michael StephensI’m writing from Limerick, Ireland, where I am speaking at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Information Literacy satellite conference before heading to Lyon, France, for IFLA proper. The conversations and presentations here are thought provoking, focused on the constantly evolving definition and approaches for teaching information literacy. Why aren’t students good writers? What prevents them from doing their best work? Are devices to blame? Short attention spans? Rock and roll?

An odd thought bubbles up: Are we sometimes too concerned about process and what we think students are doing wrong that we miss what they are doing right? To put a fine point on it, are we too hung up on proper citation ­formatting?

I call this “citation fixation,” and when I asked my San José State University School of Information colleague ­Michelle Simmons for her take, she shared a handout with me that she gives her students each semester. In it, Simmons notes, “Remember that the purpose of a citation is to help your reader find the source, so give enough information that I’ll be able to find the source if I want to. Then let it go.”

Let it go

Michelle cites (heh) a blog post from Barbara Fister at ACRlog. “Manual Labor” decries some of the changes and turmoil associated with the various style manuals and gets to the core concern I have: “What exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references?” That made me immediately run to my rubrics to make sure I wasn’t focusing too much on the minutia of citation. No, just a note to use a consistent style.

Kurt Schick at the Chronicle of Higher Education calls the issue at hand “Citation Obsession” and writes “nitpicky professors hinder student writers’ development by effectively forcing them to invest more time and thinking in less important elements of writing.”

But wait—shouldn’t we be teaching soon-to-be librarians how to cite properly so they in turn can deliver the gospel to their young charges in the university? And grading them down for every missed period or italicized article title? I’d argue that instead of citation fixation we promote reflection and consideration of the ideas presented in our courses. To synthesize is a sometimes overused verb in higher education, but it works in this instance. Students encountering new ideas and voices of any discipline are better served by someone who can nudge them toward critical examination and combining ideas into cohesive structures that help them understand the world. From that understanding should come new ideas, not a perfectly cited reference.

Conor Galvin, director of graduate studies at University College Dublin (UCD) College of Human Sciences, spoke to these ideas at the IFLA pre-conference while this column was germinating. He emphasized the need for librarians to focus on mentoring students and encouraging them while they make their own way through the research process. “It’s the difference between learning stuff one-off and learning how to think,” he said.

So what are we missing when the focus lands on correct citation style and not the content students are creating? It might be hidden diamonds in the rough, ideas that, with thoughtful critique and revision, could truly shine. See the citation project for some recent research concerning student writing skills (site.citationproject.net).

Rise of the machines

So why so many formats? Why so complicated? And why, in the year 2014, are students still creating them instead of machines? Let the machines do the work. Citation managers, although not perfect, can lighten the load of citing multiple types of sources. They need to improve, however. The librarian who invents a working, always correct citation style generator should get a prize. The educators who pull back from an overemphasis on correct citations also should get an award. And to the brilliant person who conceives a better way to point readers to sources that cuts through all the confusion, proprietary voodoo, and punctuation mumbo jumbo—kudos!

Hyperlinked world

Citations are hyperlinks, right? Maybe it would be best to direct the user to the source. That’s all. Every article, every book, and, of course, every website should have a simple hyperlink. (Creating such a system will require reparations of extensive link rot and more. Taking an example from the work of the International DOI Foundation might be a welcome step.) If it’s not online, like many books, why not just use the ISBN? Citations as we use them are leftovers from the precomputer era.

What we need to do is develop an accepted, easy-to-use format that is as simple as possible. (One example of such simplicity is Apple University’s presentation on Picasso’s Bull, which is progressively stripped down to its essentials.) Focusing on complex citations—or MARC records or shelving systems—may allow for more precision but at the cost of turning people off. It isn’t worth it.

This article was published in Library Journal's September 15, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Thank you, Michael, for bringing this to lib people’s attention. As I’m writing a literature review for an MLIS course, I’ve been thinking the same thing. I’m paranoid about getting dinged for an inadequate citation list–mostly due to an Assistant Dean’s stern warning. I’d rather focus on the meat of the subject. HTML and XTML were created to reference and/or “cite” other documents in an easy and efficient way. I can’t remember the last time I actually needed a publisher’s title or a journal page number to look-up an item.

  2. This problem fits neatly with the major focus of profesorial comments on research papers – grammar and style. I think we need to affirm two things:

    1. That citation is important to the degree that it actually does reveal the significant details about the work cited. In this regard, the best tool to start with is the machine, as in book citations from WorldCat and journal citations from a database.
    2. That by far the most important emphasis of both student and professor should be becoming a good researcher, of which writing is a subset. Research demands identifying a problem, finding high quality and relevant resources, evaluating them, and then putting them into conversation/debate in order to produce a product (the writing part). I’m less concerned with content than I am with seeing students learn how to handle information well to address problems. Some students are good writers stylistically, and some are not. But all of them need to learn how to enlist information critically to solve problems or address issues.

  3. A student says:

    Michael – I couldn’t agree more. As a student in your new LIBR 200 class at San Jose State University, I just spent the last two weeks stressing myself out regarding a literature review and annotated bibliography. My major problem was not so much with the bibliography, but actually the in-text citations. It seems as though in a 10+ page paper, I had a citation in every single sentence. I am wondering if I will be marked down for that!

  4. Melissa Volman says:

    an excellent topic and I agree- simple, straightforward, include details with less stress

  5. Stephen Hearn says:

    How simple should citations be? For online articles, would “[name][title] Google it!” suffice? For many articles available online it would, and would be less vulnerable to changes than a URL link. For a cited quotation, a bit of the quoted text in a “find” search of the article would be better than citing page numbering, which can vary with different display formats. Should citation practice be adapted to the nature of the cited source rather than built on a common standard for all citations? If so, we’re not just talking about not being picky about punctuation.

  6. Cristofer Mattern says:

    Well said, Michael. As a former English/Literature teacher and current Master’s Student for Library Science, I couldn’t agree more. Students should definitely cite their work, but do they have to be so precise?