01 January 2013

Time to Question Unexamined Practices
- and start afresh?


The work here builds upon an article I had published in the Times Higher Education (25 June 2009) which is still available online at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=407112. The positive feedback from many readers enabled me to improve upon my original idea. The present work, therefore, has benefitted from readers’ constructive comments. Any views you have to offer will also be greatly appreciated and considered.


If universities are genuinely concerned about ‘the student experience’, then it is time to examine a specific area that causes undergraduates unnecessary stress – the multitude of academic referencing styles (ARS). In essence, ARS are a legacy of the print industry; they cause needless anxiety for scholars and are dysfunctional in the digital age. Is it not now time to question the assumptions that underpin ARS and even consider a brand new, uniform and universal style?

Neville (2007:16), on behalf of LearnHigher: Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, has researched “the challenge of referencing” for several years. Considering that citing source material is the life blood of academia, he pointed out that “referencing per se is a rather neglected area of research”. Indeed, perhaps because ARS have not been investigated, a systemic ‘blind spot’ has occurred and serious problems experienced by our students have gone unrecognized.

After investigating the abundance of ARS, Neville (2007:15-16) concluded “referencing styles appear to have sunk their roots deep into disciplines and these prove stubborn ground in their resistance to change. However, the problems for students can occur when they move between departments on combined study programmes...[with] two or more referencing styles and this can be aggravated by teaching staff – who may advance their own idiosyncratic ideas about referencing practice within a particular style”.

What is the primary purpose of referencing? Levine (2009) highlighted six rules to decide whether referencing was ‘fit for purpose’: (a) to enable readers to track down sources; (b) use the style appropriate to the subject; (c) be helpful to the reader; (d) be transparent – openly show the logical steps in reasoning; (e) be consistent; and (f) use common sense – avoid getting obsessed by petty rules.

For me, the bedrock of referencing is Levine’s first rule to ‘track sources’. But it is his second rule – about ‘styles related to subjects’ - that is the key cause for the excessive growth in the variety of styles. Neville (2010a) estimated that there are 14 major styles used within the UK/HE. These included well-known ones such as Harvard (author-year); MLA (Modern Language Association); BSI (British Standards Institute = Running Notes and Numeric styles); APA (American Psychological Association); Vancouver; and OSCOLA (Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities) – but many thousands also exist, especially hybrids of Harvard.

Each university department decides which ARS its students must follow. Generally, but not always, Film Studies use MLA; Chemistry and Medicine, Vancouver; Business and English, Harvard; Psychology, APA; Law, OSCOLA footnotes; and Politics sometimes give their students a choice between footnotes or Harvard.

In essence, what is ‘style’ when it comes to a citation? Style is the juggling around with both punctuation (commas, full stops, different shaped brackets and inverted commas) and formatting of fonts (italics, capitalization, bolding and underlining). Given all these variables, there is an endless permutation of ways in which a citation can be presented. Historically, these subtle nuances were a vital clue to the source of any reference.

Each style layout, therefore, distinguished whether the source was a book, Act of Parliament, newspaper, chapter within an edited book, journal or whatever. Generations of students had no problem identifying sources - within their subject - by the way they were formatted. But that was in the cosy days of the now outdated print industry – when typesetters ruled supreme.

Academic journals are crucial for the publication of ideas, experiments, theories, conference papers, reports, theses, surveys, abstracts etc. Each research discipline has its own range of journals that feed upon (and into) the growth of knowledge. In order to carve out its own distinct identity, every journal (and academic publisher) evolved its own strict ‘house style’ – to which all contributors had to conform (otherwise, they would not be published). These bibliographic rules seemed set in stone. Such stipulations were tolerable when there were only a handful of printed sources to cite.

Campuses, likewise, followed the lead set by the journals and imposed a ‘house style’. In an attempt to make life simple for their students, each department produced guidelines on how to cite sources. These tended to be the responsibility of departmental secretaries or foisted upon a new member of staff. Handbooks were re-printed year after year, often neglected and rarely updated in any systematic way.

One result (experienced by study advice tutors – this is my line of work) is that students find these ‘how to reference’ guidelines are unreliable, limited in their examples (fail to show electronic sources), grossly inconsistent and contradictory. All the conflicting information causes not only confusion, but also seriously undermines self-confidence when a student is marked down because s/he ‘did not follow the correct referencing format’. In some respects, the ‘formulistic aspects of the process’ can inhibit student creativity in their academic writing (Neville, 2010b:30).

The lack of any clear guidelines has allowed some maverick lecturers to adopt a semi-dictatorial role when instructing their students. They tell them to “forget the handbook - reference the way I say it must be done”. Esoteric stipulations by lecturers have been described as a ‘fetish’ by Levine (2009:3). No wonder students experience confusion and their confidence is undermined.

An added complication in this mix is the diversity of students. Universities are now keen to recruit from a wide range of backgrounds: international, mature, disabled, distant learners, disadvantaged, etc. New recruits are disillusioned by the bedlam that confronts them when it comes to referencing. A student from Turkmenistan was delighted when she mastered the referencing system 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. When told she had referenced wrongly, she was disappointed.

Sanders (2009) made a personal exploration of ‘reverential referencing and the fetish of footnotes’ and the unnecessary stress caused by ‘citation overload’. He contrasted the relaxed 1990s attitude to referencing with the ‘academic paraphernalia’ of 2008 and the reams of guidelines on the topic – even the best OU documents have little unanimity. This triumph of form over content makes many new students feel inadequate at university.

Given this distressing and chaotic situation with ARS, an attempt has been made to resolve the problems by introducing a unitary style across all disciplines within a single campus at Coventry University. In 2006, all the disciplines (apart from Law) agreed upon a standardised version of the Harvard system for their students. There is some good qualitative feedback, but it is too soon to know the full benefits of this implementation. When a similar idea was proposed at Hull University in 2001 it was unanimously approved. The next question then was: “Which style would be adopted?” Each department declared “Ours, of course”. Overall, the notion of a unified system was subsequently met with vitriol by Heads of Departments. The proposal was soon dropped.

In contrast to this territoriality and the protection of little empires, modern-day students are not only caught between a ‘rock and a hard place’ of confusing guidelines and intransigent academics, but also have to reference a flood of new source material that scholars never had to cite in previous times.

I allude, obviously, to the growing mass of digital material. Although the ‘digital penny’ does not seem to have dropped with some academics, the fact is that reliable resources are now available on the World Wide Web. For example, respectable websites include: encyclopaedias; OED; government publications; Who’s Who; statistics; Hansard; vast databases (Web of Science); and most learned journals now have equivalent eJournals. In addition, there is more or less sound educational material in the form of: BBC podcasts, YouTube videos, eBooks, academic blogs, patents, eMusic, Shakespeare’s plays, software, ePoems, etc. The current crisis can be summed up as: the traditional juggling with fancy formatting is now too convoluted and ridiculous to cope with the tsunami of new sources of digital information.

In many respects, the rising tide of technology is not a problem for most modern-day students. They are confident when it comes to citing multimedia sources. Our web-savvy students are fully equipped (mentally and technically) to handle digital information. They have their broadband speeds, Wi-Fi laptops, mobile phones, iPlayers, emails, iPads, Google Scholar search engine, Facebook, Twitter, Web 2.0 ‘cloud’ storage, and digital everything. Speed is all. Given their cyber lifestyle on the super highway, the last thing they need is to hit a traffic jam caused by vintage ARS. Why should they? Why do academics stubbornly insist upon anachronistic practices? Were students in the 1960s forced to write their exams with quill pens?

Some believe that the answer to this digital logjam lies in technology itself by using reference management software (RMS) to handle citations. This has its uses (for full-time researchers), but the programs are too time-consuming for undergraduates - a sledge-hammer to crack a nut. Currently, there are 29 such RMS systems (from Aigaion to Zotero). EndNote (2010), for example, claimed “access to more online resources and publishing styles - 3,900+ online connection files...and 3,700 journal styles”. When I re-checked in 2012, they now boast “EndNote Styles collection contains more than 5,000 bibliographic styles for a variety of disciplines” (EndNote, 2012). Are these alarmingly high figures accurate? Does anyone have the correct total of ARS? I believe that these RMS systems produce more and more hybrid styles. Some RMS sites even have the facility to ‘create your own style’. In effect, they seem to be spreading the ‘cancerous growth’ of ARS, rather than curing any symptoms.

In summary, students today experience serious and growing problems with ARS: departments are grossly inconsistent and contradictory in the guidelines they produce; some staff are highly subjective and seemingly have a ‘fetish’ for their own peculiar style; disciplines are unscientific in the dogmatic way they perpetuate antiquated methods – even in the face of rapid advances of technological change; and the area of referencing is rarely researched by academics. “Physician, heal thyself” – or should that be “Academic, research thyself”?

Set against this background, I have devised a brand new referencing style that severs all links with the bygone print industry and is specifically tailored to the demands of the digital age. That is, it avoids any going back-and-forth to impose formulaic layouts. It is ‘minimalist’. Less is more: less formatting and more speed whilst citing a source. In essence, it eliminates most of the customary commas, brackets, italics etc. It is a student-friendly style that should do away with elaborate ‘how to reference’ guides. Only a few basic principles need be followed.

I propose the C-T-S style which stands for Creator – Time – Source. The C and T are easily explained. They are a variation on the traditional Author-Year style. ‘Creator’ is used rather than the limited ‘author’ in the old-fashioned book or journal sense. Creator embraces producers of videos, patents, films, paintings, software, music/songs, statues, TV programs and all printed sources. Creators can be individuals or institutions.

Likewise, the T is for Time rather than the broad ‘year’. When it comes to citing multimedia material (CDs, YouTube videos, DVD films, etc) an exact time (or specific period) is more useful and accurate. All the time elements of the CTS style are only stated once and brought together immediately after the name of the creator (e.g., McLEAN, Renwick. 21 June 2006. eNewspaper - see list below).

The innovative aspect of CTS, however, is the S for Source. This crucial, novel element has rarely been used in past ARS. Compilers of bibliographies know first-hand what ‘source’ they have consulted. It is, therefore, their duty to state openly the Source they used – that is, to declare whether it is a journal, website, ePainting, book, blog or whatever. This then immediately makes redundant the vast array of punctuation that has been used for centuries. No more game of Cluedo when deciphering a bibliography.

The predominant (but not sole) punctuation within the CTS style is the full-stop. It is the key separator between each element of a citation – it is strong and unambiguous. It is perhaps best to show by example. The following bibliographic list highlights nineteen different sources that have been modified from a recent consultation document produced by the BSI (2008) in conjunction with the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) - version 690.

APPLE COMPUTER INC. 27 June 2006. Software. Mac OS X Update 10.4.7 Intel. http://www.apple.com. Path. Homepage. Mac OS X. Downloads. Apple. Accessed 15 July 2006.

BOMTEMPO, João Domingos. 23 June 2006. eMusic score. Quinteto para piano e cordas. Composed 18??. Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Biblioteca Nacional Digital. http://purl.pt/792. Accessed 19 July 2006.

BRY, Ilse and AFFLERBACH, Lois. 1968. Journal. In Search of an Organizing Principle for the Behavioral Science Literature. Community Mental Health. 4.1.75-84.

CENTRAL ADVISORY COUNCIL FOR EDUCATION (ENGLAND). 1967. Report. Children and their Primary Schools. Plowden. London. HMSO.

CHAGALL, Marc. 1913. ePainting. Paris Through the Window. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. New York. Artists Rights Society. Paris. ADAGP. 2005. JPEG 298x286px. 38.88 KB. http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_28_2.html. Accessed 9 September 2006.

CRANE, Diana. 1972. Book. Invisible Colleges. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

CUTTER’S WAY. 1981. Film. Director Ivan PASSER. USA. Gürian Entertainments & United Artists.

DAVE ALLEN AT LARGE. 25 February 2006. TV. BBC.

GERMANIA: CUM PRIUILEGIO. 1579. eMap. ca. 1:3,000,000. Antwerp. 36x48cm. University of Berne. Ryhiner Map Collection Ryh 4301. http://www.stub.unibe.ch/stub/ryhiner/. Path. Homepage. World maps. Germany. Accessed 10 June 2006.

IETF: Internet Engineering Task Force. March 2005. Web memo. RFC 3979. Intellectual Property Rights in IETF Technology. Edited by S. BRADNER. http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc3979.txt. Accessed 18 June 2006.

KAFKA, Franz. 1925. eBook. The Trial. Translated by David WYLLIE. Project Gutenberg. Updated 2006-03-08. 462 KB. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/ktria11.txt. Accessed 5 June 2006.

KING’S SINGERS. 1981. Music score. Christmas with the King’s Singers: Six Arrangements for Mixed Voices. London. Chappell Music.

McLEAN, Renwick. 21 June 2006. eNewspaper. Canary Islands Species Threatened by Soft Borders. International Herald Tribune. Paris. http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/06/20/news/ecology.php. Accessed 7 July 2006.

MYERS, Michael P., YANG, Jay and STAMPE, Per. 15 December 1999. eJournal. Visualization and Functional Analysis of a Maxi-K Channel (mSlo) Fused to Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. Chile. Electronic Journal of Biotechnology. 2.3. http://www.ejbiotechnology.info/content/vol2/issue3/full/3/3.pdf. Accessed 28 June 2006.

PAX, Salam. 21 February 2003. Blog. Where Is Raed? http://dear_raed.blogspot.com. Path. Homepage. Archive. Accessed 10 July 2006.

PHILIP MORRIS INC. 7 January 1981. Patent. Optical Perforating Apparatus and System. European application 0021165 A1.

ROGUE WAVES. 12 July 2006. Podcast. Engines of Our Ingenuity. Episode 2111. KUHF-FM Houston Public Radio. http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2111.htm. Accessed 28 May 2010.

SMITH, C. 1980. Chapter. Problems of Information Studies in History. In. S. STONE. ed. Humanities Information Research. Sheffield. CRUS. 27–30.

WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS. 2005. eMagazine. The Online Magazine for International Literature. PEN American Center. http://www.wordswithoutborders.org. Accessed 12 July 2006.

A comma is used to separate the creator’s surname from the first name (JOYCE, James). I prefer to use upper case for the creator’s surname (it makes the name stand out and easily indicates the next citation); the forename is given in full (lower case, after the initial upper case letter) so that a person’s other research can easily be traced via a search engine. The names of corporate authors are also printed in capitals; however, if there is a short acronym, then this is used at the start of the citation and, after a colon, the full title is shown (NICE: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). Films and other titles, at the start of a citation, are also shown in capitals. Any punctuation that is embedded within a title, especially a colon to signpost a sub-title, must be respected and left unaltered.

Only websites will be underlined - automatically, as a hyperlink. The traditional terms used with journals (Volume, Issue and Pages) are omitted and replaced by the numbers with a full stop in between (122.1.39-50). An intelligent academic should know the logical sequence and be able to trace the source. In-text citations remain as before in the traditional styles. My reform is purely upon the A-Z reference list at the end of the work and within footnote citations.

There are two strong reasons why there is an urgent need to dump the old ARS and adopt a unified CTS style. First, academics should practice what they preach. They must reflect upon how they reference their source material, be objective and self-critical, analyse the changes brought about by digital sources and progress with the times. Academics must question their underlying assumptions about their pre-digital ARS. I believe that the proposed de-cluttered CTS style is ‘fit for the future’. It is simple, explicit, avoids mysterious clues, reduces keystrokes, and can cope with an unlimited array of multimedia source material – now and in the future.

Second, students today are consumers of expensive education. They pay for it, but are not getting value for money. They are being short changed with shoddy, archaic styles of referencing that should have been revised decades ago. Academia is universal and students are globe-trotters. Their speed of progress must not be impeded by being forced to switch between subtlety dissimilar ARS as they move from publication-to-publication, department-to-department, campus-to-campus and country-to-country.

The digital clock is ticking – let’s introduce a brand new universal style for our students and ‘go beyond’ what has always been.

Dr. Alec Gill MBE

E: a.gill@hull.ac.uk or alec.gill@hotmail.co.uk – the latter is my preferred email.
26 John Street, Kingston Square, HULL HU2 8DH, Yorkshire.
T: 01482.225009 M:07786_582195


NOTE: All the research and writing connected with the CTS style has been conducted in my own time (as this work was frowned upon as not being within my University study advice duties).

Reference List

BSI: British Standards Institute. 21 October 2008. eReport. BS ISO 690. Information and documentation. Guidelines for bibliographic references and citations to information resources. 08/30147086 DC. http://shop.bsigroup.com/en/ProductDetail/?pid=000000000030147086. Accessed 5 June 2010.

COVENTRY UNIVERSITY. 2010. Website. Harvard Referencing Style. http://home.ched.coventry.ac.uk/caw/harvard/index.htm. Accessed 24 May 2010.

EASTWOOD, Maureen. 2010. Internal Monthly Report. Table showing student worries about Referencing. Scarborough. University of Hull. Study Advice Service. [Unfortunately, this research is not included in this blog because the graph would not Copy and Paste]

ENDNOTE REFERENCE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE. 2010. Website. EndNote X3 New Features. http://www.endnote.com/enx3info.asp. Accessed 1 May 2010.

ENDNOTE REFERENCE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE. 2012. Website. Output Styles. http://www.endnote.com/support/enstyles.asp. Accessed 13 January 2012.

GILL, Alec. 25 June 2009. eArticle. There are 3,000 ways to cite source material - why not make it one? Times Higher Education. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=407112. Accessed 9 August 2012.

LEVIN, Peter. 8 June 2009. ePaper. Does an Insistence on Detailed and ‘correct’ Referencing inhibit Students from Thinking for Themselves? LearnHigher Symposium. Referencing and Writing. University of Bradford. http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/learningareas/referencing/resourcesforstaff.htm. Accessed 15 May 2010.

NEVILLE, Colin. 2007. ePaper. The Challenge of Referencing. LearnHigher. http://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/TLTC/learnhigher/Resources/resources/Referencing/Staff/Summary%20of%20referencing%20issues.pdf. Accessed 21 June 2009.

NEVILLE, Colin. 2010a. Book. The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism. 2nd Edition. Maidenhead. Open University Press.

NEVILLE, Colin. 9 June 2010b. Unpublished Paper. International Students, Writing and Referencing. LearnHigher Symposium. University of Bradford.

SANDERS, John. 3 June 2009. Unpublished Paper. Horray for Harvard? – Reverential Referencing and the Fetish of Footnotes. OU Conference. Making Connections: Exploring Scholarship for the Digital Age. Open University.