Just for reference

by James Harbeck

Bookcase of old books with beautiful spines
Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

If you edit academic books or articles, you probably spend a lot of time tidying up references. Sometimes as much time as editing the entire rest of the text. First, you have to pick your style: Chicago (note or name-date), MLA, APA, or, in the sciences, AMA or Vancouver. Then, you have to make everything consistent with it, to the extent possible. On top of that, you may have to look up the sources to double-check them.

I’ve edited medical continuing-education presentations that had no bibliographies and would cite some sources as just, for instance, “Heinz & Wong 2013.” I would have to find the rest of the citation—and I would, nearly every time, with a single search. Which means that anyone else who wanted to know would also be able to find it as quickly. Our citation standards were developed before the wonderful world of high-powered search engines. If we can find the source from an incomplete or inaccurate citation, how much of this tidying up is necessary?

Now, yes, there are more reasons than just findability to give detailed and consistent bibliographic information. You want to be tidy. You want readers not to have to spend undue time and effort: “Wasting our time so that readers don’t have to waste theirs” is in the editor’s job description. You want to give credit where it is due, and accurately. And you don’t want any risk of ambiguity—you don’t want people flipping fruitlessly through the wrong edition, for instance.

But still. Not all standard parts of a bibliographic citation are truly necessary. Here are several things some styles require that we should consider just getting rid of:

  • City. Tell me one time the city of publication has been useful to you. One! And I don’t mean useful in that you earned extra money for the time it took to look up the head offices of several publishers. The city may have been useful a century or more ago—it may still be useful when citing very old works. But anything in the last hundred years? I have never found the actual city useful in the slightest, and I have three graduate degrees that I earned with the assistance of other people’s bibliographies. The country can sometimes be useful: for instance, if you want to know whether the reference is to the British or American version of The Prodigal Tongue or Dreyer’s English, or if the publisher is an obscure small company on the other side of the world. But you don’t need the city to know the country. The MLA has already removed the city from its citation style—we should all follow suit.
  • Ibid. Sure, it’s shorter. Sure, it’s Latin and reeks of class like your uncle’s old sofa reeks of cigar smoke. But you can’t put it in until the references are all in final order, because if the reference before it changes, you’re in trouble. And if you’re using short-form citations, it doesn’t save all that much space.
  • http://. Also, any little session identifiers on the ends of URLs. In fact, any more of the URL than you need to find the exact source. And don’t start with the “But https!” If you just drop the part after the “//” into your browser, you’ll get there, with or without the s. Likewise, we do not need to stick anything like angle brackets around the URL. Everyone knows what URLs are now.
  • “Accessed at” or anything similar. Come on, people. This is implied by the presence of the URL. Do we put “Read in” before a book title?
  • Accessed date. What matters for an online article is the last updated date of the version you saw. If that’s available, put that in, and then we’ll know when the article actually dates from. If that date isn’t available, then yes, put the date you accessed it; it’s better than nothing. But, otherwise, the main function of the accessed date is to reveal to the readers how many of the web sources you looked up in a flurry of googling a month before the deadline.
  • Subtitle. This just makes things longer—sometimes a lot longer. It also creates more opportunities to get something wrong. Sure, if you’re billing by the hour it can make extra billable work double-checking it all, but you must have better things to spend that time on. The only exception is where the title by itself is not very clear—for example, Play Time: Chronological dilation and compression in Noh theatre (I don’t think that’s a real book…yet). In that case you’re just being nice to the reader. The rest of the time? Nuh-uh. To heck with forced consistency.

On the other hand, there are a few things we might want to consider adding, when appropriate:

  • Original publication date. Depending on the citation style you use, any book that is in a reprint edition may have only the date of the reprint listed. The problem with this is that readers often get a sense of a source’s place in the discourse—or in history generally—from its original date of publication. It’s not really helpful to see a 1998 date on a work of philosophy or critical theory that first hit the shelves in 1954.
  • Original title. If you’re referencing a translated work, or one that was originally published under one name and was later republished under another (not in a substantially revised version), this is useful. It’s sometimes included, but I’d like to see it all the time. Yes, I can look it up, but see above about wasting time.
  • Library. This is only for old and really hard-to-find books. But it sure would be nice to know who in heck has that quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore the author is citing. For archival materials, citing location is already de rigueur; for anything else that one can’t locate with a quick search, it would be a lovely courtesy and could save a person a lot of time.

Remember whom you’re doing all this citing for. It’s not for formalism pedants who will blow gaskets if you have the wrong comma italicized. It’s for stressed-out graduate students and untenured faculty who want to research further on the same topic—which probably means people such as the author.


James Harbeck (jamesharbeck.ca, sesquiotic.com) has an MA in linguistics and a PhD in drama. He’s been an editor, writer, and designer for more than 20 years.

This article was copy edited by Leslie Lapides.

2 thoughts on “Just for reference

  1. Whoa (or, as the kids say, woah!). Here I am, working on material for copy-editing students about documentation.

    Of course I set them up with basics on major citation styles, but I’m thinking, “I REALLY want to make sure I drive home the idea that it’s important to think about WHY material is being cited. Beginning editors often tend to head straight to a deep focus on the style nitty gritty; they can tend to assume that the cites they learned to make in postsecondary classes are THEY standard; and they can miss important issues about whether or not a citation is appropriate at all. I’ve written a few paragraphs about this for the intro page, but I’d really like to send them to do a bit of reading and thinking.”

    Nothing in the course texts takes a step back like this, so I scrounge around online a bit, and find… James has written just the kind of thing I’m looking for, and Editors Toronto published it LAST WEEK! Thanks to all.


  2. Thanks for this, James.

    For clients who want all the intricate details for each reference-list entry, editors can use automated services that hunt down the minutiae. The one that works well for me is Edifix: https://edifix.com/ . Cuts down on editing time and reserves brain power for heavy-duty editing elsewhere in the manuscript.


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