Hey, You Kids! Get Your Automated Citation Generators Off Of My Lawn!

There are a lot of cool things on the internet for researchers: amazing tools for checking cross-references, for tracking citations, for collecting and organizing references, for finding source material, for organizing and visualizing data. It’s really all quite marvelous!

The one thing I find myself sort of cranky about, though, is a particular species of “helpful” tech: the automated reference/citation generator. There are lots of them out there (Son of Citation Engine, RefMe, etc.) and even some tools designed for other purposes can include automated reference generation tools (RefWorks). These tools sell themselves as a convenience for the user (especially for the student user) — one no longer has to “waste time” figuring out how to properly format a reference in MLA or APA or Chicago, one need only specify the style and populate the given fields with data on the source. No more are we required to find the most recent edition of a given style guide* in order to figure out the rules and how to follow them. We needn’t even go to any of the many university-run online style source guides (even the venerable Purdue OWL is optional). All we have to do is ID the style and plug in the info. Easy-peasy!

This is where we go from marvelous to stupid and annoying.

CMS16 Represent!

CMS16 Represent!

The beauty of the style guide — and of the process of learning to use it — lies in the choice to forego lazy convenience in favor of knowledge. Studying and getting to know a given style guide’s rules isn’t exactly the same as using an automated system that one has to trust to get the rules right. The student who relies only on citation generators has no way to tell when those generators get it wrong (as they do, far more often than they should, especially if they aren’t regularly edited and updated). S/he also doesn’t learn the internal logic of a style, the reasons why it presents information in the format it does. Learning about citation styles can provide valuable insight not only into the practice of reference use in general, but also into the priorities of the fields of study that use them.

Example: I’m a long-time Chicago user in my formal scholarly mode, working in the humanities for my entire career. I think Chicago-style footnote citations are terrific for the humanities — they allow rich and interesting distinctions among and within sources, they create a space for relevant commentary, and they provide information about authorship, content, and production that is vitally important for the kind of close, text-attentive and context-sensitive work that scholars in the humanities typically do.

I am currently engaged in a new discipline — library and information science — that does a much different kind of research, and appropriately requires a different citation style: APA. APA parenthetical documentation (with rare footnote/endnote use) is elegantly suited for social science content representation. Studies in the social sciences are more about data than textual content (and when they are about text, they are about text as data), so most of one’s citations in papers of this kind are about pointing to other relevant data sets and analyses rather than about leading readers to specific bits of text content and interpreting that content. Where a Kant scholar in the humanities might sometimes find (Kant, 2001) uninformative and potentially misleading (no indication of translator, the Kant I’m interested in died LONG before 2001, etc.), a social scientist doesn’t necessarily need to know the same things about the text itself in order to benefit from the pointer generated by the in-text reference. S/he needs to know it’s there, but s/he doesn’t necessarily need to know a specific thing about its content or provenance in order to work with it.

There is, in short, a reason why different styles work the way they do, and a reason why certain fields of study may prefer one style over another as a part of representing their research. They do different things with sources, and that matters, especially if you want to understand what constitutes good writing in a given field.

When a student treats a citation practice as a plagiarism avoidance task, to be gotten through as easily and as quickly as possible, that student is also missing the point of scholarship as a shared enterprise, as well as the use of citation as information rather than procedural self-defense. Learning a citation style, even if one occasionally gets the period in the wrong spot, is worthwhile insofar as it teaches us more about how information itself is shared and understood in a community of scholars.


/end cranky old lady hollering

* I still own all of the (now sadly outdated) style books I was required to purchase as an undergraduate, and I also own Chicago 14, Chicago 16, and APA 6. The only reason Strunk & White isn’t on my bookshelf is because I usually borrowed it from the library. So you can kind of guess where this is going, right? :)


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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One Response to Hey, You Kids! Get Your Automated Citation Generators Off Of My Lawn!

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