05 June 2009


This is the full-length version of an article that will be published in the 'Times Higher Education' on 25th June 2009 (pp 24-25). It is online at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=407112. It was originally written around 20th April; but THE asked me to shorten it to a 750-word piece for their Opinion section. I have done this - and you know what it is like when sacrifices have to be made. Anyway, here is the detailed article. I am especially keen to show a range of examples of the new author-year-type referencing system that I have proposed.

Time to Move from Chaos to Order
by Alec Gill MBE

The internet is, fortunately, causing havoc with the way academics reference their source material. It is forcing a re-think about the archaic referencing rituals that are performed within the ‘ivory towers’ of academia.

In the pre-web days, it was reasonable to insist upon the curious underlining of book titles, the idiosyncratic italicisation when naming journals, single inverted commas for chapters within edited books, the dots, commas, brackets in specific places (or not) and full-stops here, there and everywhere. The permutation of punctuation is endless - and the methods of citing references are cumbersome.

Some departmental heads still vigorously defend their scholastic territory - perhaps to maintain a vestige of petty control. They had battled with bibliographies; therefore, the next generation of students must also uphold the outmoded practices.

Students today, however, are under a host of pressures never encountered before. Leaving aside financial and workload worries, they have to reference academic material from a wide range of multi-media sources (not envisaged even a few years ago). Overseas and mature students (and those with dyslexia) are often baffled by all the dots, commas, brackets and underlinings that are used to distinguish a variety of different source material. And joint-degree students (e.g., Politics and Law) have to switch between two different styles: ‘Harvard’ and footnotes. An international student from Turkmenistan was highly delighted when she mastered the referencing style used by the Open University (OU) – “I felt I had learnt the British method of referencing – and I was happy”. Then, after arriving at Hull University, she had to learn a completely new system and felt cheated.

From my own experience as a study advice tutor, I can testify that many of the departmental handbooks are grossly inadequate and often provide confusing guidelines. In theory, these should give reliable directions about how to reference; but in reality, they are riddled with inconsistencies. Even the best handbooks contain contradictory information within the examples that are meant to clarify the situation. And many a student has complained that some academics blatantly tell them to ignore the handbook completely and reference the way their lecturer tells them it must be done.

The referencing of websites has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. Many guidelines ignore the existence of the internet or provide an example from a traditional journal and merely add the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) web address at the end. However, a variety of web resources have no stated author, year or page number to cite. For example, the NHS (National Health Service), CBI (Confederation of British Industry), the BBC, and Hansard websites are classed as ‘corporate authorship’. Students have to guess how to reference such material. In addition, more and more students have to cite multi-media material: blogs, podcasts, DVDs, CDs, YouTube, works of art, television programmes, films, and so on.

In an endeavour to help academics cope with the citation complexities, new software has come into use in recent years. These programmes are certainly marvellous and do a great job. However, they tend to pander to the time-honoured comic convolutions of compiling a bibliography. EndNote is a dedicated “easy-to-use bibliography” package that claims to handle 3,300 journal styles. Microsoft’s Word 2007 now has a special ‘Citations & Bibliography’ section under its ‘Reference ribbon’. It formats references into a host of different publishing styles: APA, Chicago, GB7714, GOST, ISO690, MLA, SIST02, and Turabian (but, please, do not ask me to explain what they all mean). And, RefWorks is a web-based competitor to the two previous (static) systems. It is part of the new Web 2.0 ‘cloud’ technology that allows users to share their bibliographic material through social networking and also benefit from the two-way process.

All this juggling about, however, seems to be building a new Tower of Babel. It is time to change. Academic referencing must be reformed, unified and simplified. There has to be a move toward speed when referencing and the reduction of time-consuming keystrokes. My proposed method builds upon the traditional author-year system [popularly, but erroneously, referred to as the ‘Harvard’ system]. However, it strips away the guesswork element that has scholars looking for clues in order to work out whether the source is a book, journal, chapter, newspaper or whatever. I urge that italics, underlining, brackets, bold type, inverted commas and some full-stops are made obsolete. The aim of the new system is to be more explicit. That is, after stating the name(s) of the author and year, the citation openly tells the reader what type of resource follows - such as a book, website, painting, chapter, etc. The new system could be called: author-year-type. In effect, future bibliographies will insert the type of material that is being referred to; but save time, effort and the stress of going back and forth over the text to insert fancy formatting. The list at the end of the academic work will, of course, remain in alphabetical order. The way sources are cited within the body of the text will also stay the same (author, year, and page number where necessary).

Obviously, there has to be consistency, and this I hope to provide by showing a variety of specific examples (see below). Initially, I endeavoured to compile my own list of references. I wanted these to be genuine and began to hunt for appropriate material to cite. This proved difficult and I felt a certain bias creeping into the process. Then I came across a ready-made list that proved ideal. It is by the OU (in the UK) on their website. Although this list gave me a sound basis, I have taken the liberty to chop and change it around. Added to this, I have presented the following list of references in two broad categories: Traditional (books, journals, chapters) and Digital (websites, blogs, DVDs, TV programmes) – I have also inserted a corporate authorship and other web-based references (and deleted a couple).


Chalke, S. 2003 Book: How to Succeed as a Working Parent, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Thompson, K. 2003 Journal: Fantasy, Franchises, and Frodo Baggins: the Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood, The Velvet Light Trap, 52/Fall/45-63.

Mason, R. 1994 Chapter: The Educational Value of ISDN, in Mason, R. and Bacsich, P. (eds) ISDN: Applications in Education and Training, Exeter: Short Run Press.

Mackay, C. 2002 Newspaper: Alert over Big Cat, Daily Mirror, 4 July/28.

Halliday, J. 1995 Report: Assessment of the Accuracy of the DTI's Database of the UK Wind Speeds, Energy Technology Support Unit, ETSU-W-11/00401/REP.

Jones, J. 1994 Paper: Polymer Blends Based on Compact Disc Scrap, in Proceedings of the Annual Technical Conference, Society of Plastics Engineers, San Francisco, 1-5 May 1994, Brookfield, CT, 2865-2867.

Open University 1984 Text: T281 Basic Physical Science for Technology, Unit 9, 'Thermochemistry', Milton Keynes: Open University.

Morishita, M. 2003 Thesis: Empty Museums: Transculturation and the Development of Public Art Museums in Japan, Unpublished PhD, Milton Keynes: Open University.

Horan, D. 2002 Painting: Kipper in the Cat's Mouth, Watercolour: 20x30 cm, London: National Gallery.


Spitzer, K.L., Eisenberg, M.B. and Lowe, C.A. 1998 Web: Information Literacy: Essential Skills for the Information Age, ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology, Syracuse University (ED 427 780) http://ericit.org/toc/infoliteracytoc.shtml accessed 28 October 2003.

Open University Library 2005 Web: Welcome to the Open University Library
http://library.open.ac.uk/ accessed 2 February 2006.

NHS (National Health Service) Choices 2009 Web: Jet Lag http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Jet-lag/Pages/Introduction.aspx?url=Pages/What-is-it.aspx accessed 21 March 2009.

Cline, W.R. 1992 eBook: The Economics of Global Warming, Washington DC: Peterson Institute http://books.google.com/books?id=kTJvx2-fTYUC&printsec=frontcover accessed 2 June 2009.

Willie, S.S. 2003 eBook: Acting Black: College, Identity and the Performance of Race, Taylor and Francis e-book collection
http://library.open.ac.uk/linking/index.php?id=311027 accessed 10 April 2006.

Virkus, S. 2003 eJournal: Information Literacy in Europe: a Literature Review, Information Research, 8/4/159 http://informationr.net/ir/8-4/paper159.html accessed 28 October 2003.

Cavendish, C. 2009 eNewspaper: Insane Spendaholics are Mortgaging our Future, The Times, 20 March http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/camilla_cavendish/article5941273.ece accessed 2 June 2009.

MacLeod, D. 2007 eNewspaper: Oxbridge Trainee Teachers 'twice as likely to get jobs', Education Guardian, 3 August http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/aug/03/schools.uk1 accessed 28 August 2008.

Sloniowski, L. 2005 Blog: Information Literacy in Canada - Because Sharing is Nice, 30 June http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ilig/archives/learning_objects/ accessed 2 February 2006.

Wings of a Butterfly 2005 Podcast: ABC Radio National, Sydney http://www.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/default.htm#mind accessed 16 September 2005.

Strang, W. 1903 ePainting: Neil Munro 1864-1930, National Galleries of Scotland http://www.nationalgalleries.org/index.php/collection/online_az/4:322/results/0/3342/ accessed 2 February 2006.

Open University 2008 DVD: T320 E-business Technologies: Foundations and Practice, DVD 1: Video Case Studies, Milton Keynes: Open University.

Knight, C.J. 1997 Email: Cumbrian Windfarms, May 29 to J.Q.Parker-Knoll.

The Apprentice 2008 TV: BBC1, 11 June.

Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers 2003 Film: Directed by Peter Jackson, New York: Newline Productions Inc.

My final recommendation - to prevent misunderstanding when referencing - is to avoid the use of only lowercase fonts in titles. I strongly advise the use of traditional capitalization of titles. The fashion for all lowercase titles is a passing fad that will fade. A recent example was when Hull City Council promoted “hull – the pioneering city”.

Academics often tell students to be objective when examining scientific situations. It is time to practise what we preach. We need to become detached and analytical about what is at the heart of scholarly inquiry – the way we reference our source material. Too much student and research time is wasted upon such trivial traditions. My motivation is to ease the stress upon our globe-trotting students, especially those who straddle academic disciplines.

Compiling a bibliography is not a game of Cluedo. The reader should not have to waste time guessing where a particular academic source is located. The purpose of a reference list is to enable other researchers to find the source material if they wish. And, the more explicit we make it, the better.

Reference reform is long overdue. The demands and pace of technological advances are forcing change in many areas of everyday life. Indeed, academics of all people, must apply scientific logic and critical thinking to their own methodology. The onus is upon us to bring referencing up to date and into the 21st century. This process is not ‘dumbing down’; it is a catching up with reality, de-cluttering absurdity, and joining the Digital Age.

[P.S. The above long version of this article was written before I attended the University of Bradford symposium on 'Referencing & Writing' (8 June). That is why - for those who noticed - the introductions are different - thanks.]


EndNote 2008 Web: EndNote X2 New Features
http://www.endnote.com/enx2info.asp accessed 19 Dec 2008.

Gill, A. 1997 Web: Talk Topics - English, Psychology, Reminiscence, Hull’s Trawling Heritage, and Superstitions
http://www.hull.ac.uk/php/cesag/index.htm accessed 5 January 2009.

Microsoft Office Online 2009 Web: Create a Bibliography
http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word/HA100674921033.aspx accessed 24 March 2009.

Open University 2009 Web: Citation Guides: OU Harvard Style, OU Library Services
http://library.open.ac.uk/research/citastyle/index.cfm accessed 11 February 2009.

RefWorks 2009 Web: Your Online Research Management Writing and Collaboration Tool
http://www.refworks.com/ accessed 19 March 2009.

Alec Gill - MBE BSc MSc FHEA
The University of Hull
Study Advice Service
Academic Tutor + MultiMedia Developer
01482.466344 - Office
www.hull.ac.uk/php/cesag - my research work