Academic citation practices need to be modernized

References should lead to full texts wherever possible

The current core details

There has been some past effort to standardize a certain core of things that all academic references will include. For books this includes

  • author last name; plus at least one first name initial (or full first name);
  • the same details for all other authors
  • full title (including sub-titles, although they are often left off)
  • place of publication; the name of the publisher; and the year date of publication
  • author(s) last name, and initial(s) or first name, as for books.
  • full title (including sub-titles)
  • the journal name. This should be utterly straightforward. But instead journals often abbreviate their own names and the names of other journals in various completely unpredictable and unnecessary ways (e.g writing ‘Jnl’ instead of ‘journal’ or using acronyms). Different sets of academic editors, professional associations and commercial publishers seem to take a perverse pride in recording the source details of publications in different ways. These are ultra-legacy elements, decipherable only by the cognoscenti and stemming from the days of letter press printing half a century ago, when saving characters also saved money. they have no current rationale at all.
  • the year of publication, sometimes supplemented by a month date or a season name (e.g. Summer)
  • the volume of publication. Actually this should always be just an esoteric re-coding of the year, with the number depending on when volume 1 first happened. However, some journals also have more than volume per calendar year, to make things difficult. An extra spice of incomprehensibility is added by some journals who record their volume numbers in Roman numerals (like LXIII) — a master stroke of one-upmanship.
  • the page numbers range — i.e. the beginning page number to end page number.

Why these core details don’t work any more

Many elements of the list above are broken or have become pointless in the digital age.

  1. Author names in many British and European sources (book publishers and journals alike) often still include just a single initial. Academics and professionals from these smaller nations have been remarkably slow to appreciate the globalization of knowledge, and hence the need for much more distinctive author names. They (and their journals) are still reluctant to go beyond a single initial (J.) to distinguish John Smith from Joan Smith. By contrast, American publishers and journals (more accustomed to a country with 300 million people in it) tend to give the first name in full, and sometimes a second initial as well. Clearly, in the era of global search engines the US practice needs to become universal, but there is still a long way to go.
  2. In all the STEM sciences the number of author names for journal articles has tended to increase sharply in the last ten years. In some disciplines the proliferation of author names is beginning to cause some reductions to be made in which author names are included in references, although the process is proceeding in an erratic and non-standardized way. Where once journals or book publishers might have tried to list all authors, increasingly some sources will only list the first ten or even just the first five authors in their reference lists. People who want a full author list hence need to actually go to the article itself, where the first page will still show everyone involved. With many physics papers listing 50+ authors, and some several hundred, this change has become inevitable.
  3. Volume and issue numbers no longer make sense for journals that have moved to continuous publication. Even for journals that retain volume and issue numbers almost all articles are now being published online before (often months or year before) they get a print volume and issue number. The gap between online publication and print issue publication can be substantial. In the social sciences and humanities other authors may be very reluctant to cite such online pieces, because online papers are often harder to find on dated publisher websites, and they know that any interim reference they make will become obsolescent. Most libraries, electronic depositories and publishers insist on rewriting the citation of an early online article, so as to use instead the print on paper volume and issue version of the reference, even when this effectively falsifies the timing of the work. For instance, one of my recent papers spent nearly two years in this limbo of ‘early online’ status, and at the end of it had changed from an autumn 2011 piece to a summer 2013 one. In other words the current core convention deliberately introduces inaccuracy and falsified details into academic referencing, the opposite of their supposed purpose.
  4. Page numbers are also irrelevant for many sources now. In ‘early online’ articles the page numbers all start at 1, until the article gets incorporated into a specific volume and issue number, where suddenly the page numbers are changed completely — thereby invalidating any previous page-specific citations. Similarly many ebooks now often do not have page numbers, since they re-size automatically to fit the screen size of the device that readers are using, and to adjust to readers’ preferences for font sizes. Hence pagination in the digital age makes no sense at all.
  5. Place of publication for books is also a mostly pointless piece of information. Many big international publishers issue the same books in two or more places at the same time — for instance, in the USA and in the UK or Europe — yet these identical books will be referenced as if they were different. For many smaller publishers it is sometimes a bit of a job to find out where the place of publication actually is — even by searching their websites. This is often the last piece of information that I have to include in my reference lists, precisely because it actually matters very little in a digital era. Every publisher of any importance worldwide is now on the internet and the web and almost all will be accessed via Google Books or Amazon — home even to self-publishers nowadays.

’Legacy’ referencing marginalizes open access texts

What is the essential purpose of academic referencing? What is its ‘be all and end all’ rationale, such that we devote so many hours to it? A completely out of date answer dominates current practice — namely that referencing and citing is about showing (acknowledging) your sources, in a way that can be followed up by another researcher. Your referencing should direct them to the same precise sources and pages that you yourself used in constructing an argument or a case. In this sense referencing is about replicability (ascertaining that a cited source actually exists and says what you says it says), as well as about correctly assigning credit, or (far less commonly) criticizing inadequate work.

  1. In a wholly open-access journal. This is probably the best option because a well-known journal is easy to find, and most readers in the field will already know that in this source they can click through to any paper, maximizing their incentives to do so.
  2. An open-access article in a generally pay-walled journal. Readers will still get the full text if they click through, because the authors or university have paid to secure that. But current estimates suggest that less than 5% of articles in paywall journals are open access, so this status needs to be clearly communicated e.g. by putting [Open access] at the end of the reference. Otherwise readers may see this as just another legacy source.
  3. The immediate pre-publication version available on the university e-depository. Essentially this is the author’s final manuscript version, so that the text and Figures etc are completely identical to those in the formally published version — but, of course, the pagination is not the same.
  4. The immediate pre-publication version available on another widely accessible and well-used access open access site, such as the brilliant Research Gate, or perhaps (If you don’t know about these sites already, please read my post on not being an academic hermit).

Updating legacy practices for digital

Perhaps you are sceptical about (or do not agree with) the argument for prioritizing open access versions above. Whatever your stance here, hopefully in this section I can convince you of the need to make some other fundamental changes in our concept of the core details for journal articles and books. These absolutely essential elements, the details that should be universally given, need to be expanded in the digital era so as to cover:

  • The shortened URL for the university e-depository version of the text. All commercial publishers and many journals still hate including URLs in reference lists because in the past academics and researchers would just copy long URL addresses off the open web, or ordinary Google, with many defects. Often the links were strictly temporary (and so often became broken links). The URLs cited also included all kinds of ‘rubbish text’ elements, and so they were overly long and looked ugly, out of place and disruptive in reference lists. These problems are behind us now. No one needs to include long URLs anymore — simply go to (or another alternative site) and type in a long URL, to get a compact and neat looking version that fits easily into any reference list. All university e-depositories should now issue permanent URLs for any item that they store, links which are guaranteed not to break or change in future. The best depositiories now have their own very short but well-branded permanent URLs — for instance the LSE’s Research Online service gives URLs that look like this: In the remote contingency that anything goes wrong with the reproduction of such a link (e.g. because of misprints), the URL includes LSE’s web address and the staff will also be able to help readers to find the right source, and can issue corrections or arrange re-directs. I hope that all depositories are geared up now to work in this way?
  • The DOI permanent URL for the source (which covers both journal articles and also books). DOI here stands for ‘digital object identifier’, which is a unique code number issued by commercial publishers for each individual journal article or book that they publish. This identification number will never change. And if you add the prefix to the front of it then you get a permanent URL. So take my paper on ‘Analysing party competition in plurality rule elections’ which has: doi: 10.1177/1354068811411026. Combining the prefix and the number gives an invariant URL that takes you reliably to the commercial publisher’s site for the article. In this case it is a paywall site, so it is not much good beyond a legacy source link unless a reader has access to that journal. But if the article is in an open access journal or is an open access piece in a paywall journal, then the DOI gives readers a second permanent URL. However, it should be clear that the publishers’ DOI is a lot less attractive and is more easily messed up or mis-recorded (because it has so many numbers) than a shortened permanent URL from a good university online depository. This is an inevitable product of a DOI system that now includes some 85 million separate items.

We need to junk page references in favor of short source quotes that readers can search and find

Academic references should wherever possible be precise, and so a hallmark of past good practice has been that citations tell readers exactly where to look in otherwise long and baffling texts for the provenance of what is being said. But if digital and open access texts are now our primary sources, the ones that we know the vast majority of readers will use, then pagination becomes irrelevant. The page numbers on a e-depository text, on the ‘early online’ version of an article, and in the ‘final’ article included in a journal issue and volume will all be different. This way only confusion lies.

Other citation problems

Everything to do with referencing and citations is made a hundred times worse by the completely pointless proliferation of different referencing and citation styles and systems, one that commercial publishers have facilitated in a desperate effort to prove their responsiveness to academic demands and show their ‘value added’. There are now some 5,000+ different styles, and every month some bozo or other adds another one. This co-ordination fiasco is exhaustively documented in some of the most esoteric and pointless books ever produced by humankind — of which Turabian’s Chicago style guide is perhaps the most over-blown example. Literally thousands of editing, proof-reading and librarian/information science jobs worldwide are now dedicated to coping with the pointless complexity of so many different academic referencing protocols.

Quick recap — what authors should do now

Let me sum up the many different strands of argument above by summarizing what things a ‘born digital’, pro-open access scholar should be putting in their references now, wherever feasible. And definitely these are the details that you must be recording for the future in EndNote, Mendeley or any other reference-management software that you are using.

  • Author first name, second initial and last name. Repeat for other authors up to a limit — e.g. first five or ten authors only, and then use et al.
  • Full title and sub-title, all in words (don’t even use ‘&’ for instance)
  • Year of publication
  • Shortened permanent URL to the full text in open access online-depository — preferably the author’s home university e-depository version, or if not there some other open access version, e.g. at Research Gate.
  • The DOI permanent URL to the commercial text, that is, followed immediately by the DOI number. If an open access version of the source is available make clear that the commercial version is a secondary source. Put: ‘Also available as …’
  • The name of the commercial publisher.
  • Author first name, second initial and last name. Repeat for other authors up to a limit — e.g. first five or ten authors only.
  • Full title and sub-title, all in words, exactly as printed in the journal
  • The date of publication — give Year alone if that is all that is available, but for continuously published and early online articles give date, month and year, for instance: 26 April 2014.
  • Shortened permanent URL to the online-depository open access full text (again preferably the author’s home university e-depository version, or other open access version, like
  • The DOI permanent URL to the commercial text, that is, followed immediately by the DOI number. If an OA version is available make clear that the commercial version is a secondary source. Put: ‘Also available as …’
  • The full name of the journal, without any abbreviations.
  • The start page and end page numbers (in full). Write in a transparent way, for instance: pp. 150-179.
  • Other legacy elements can be added to taste, such as the largely pointless volume and issue numbers if they are still in use. Write in a transparent way, without codes, brackets etc. For instance: vol. 67, no. 4.
  • Author first name, second initial and last name. Repeat for other authors up to a limit — e.g. first five or ten authors only, and then et al.
  • Full title and sub-title, all in words
  • The date of publication — give date, month and year in full wherever they are available, for instance: 26 October 2012. Give the year alone if that is all you can document.
  • Shortened permanent URL to any online-depository or open access full text (preferably the author’s home university e-depository version, or another open access version).
  • A shortened, non-permanent URL linking to the publishing organization’s website or other location where the item was accessed. Few business firms or government organizations have yet wised up to the need to guarantee permanent URLs. But some heavy publishers like the World Bank or the UK’s National Audit Office now do so. Wherever you cite non-permanent URLs, you also need to add: ‘Accessed on [give full date]’.
  • The place of publication and the name of the organization publishing the item.
  • If the item is in a series of working papers or reports, give the series title and the number of the item in the series.

Achieving modernization

Nobody can change citation systems on their own. We are just at the start of what will inevitably be a long process of driving out legacy citation systems from scholarship and science and replacing them bit by bit with a modernized approach that treats digital and open access sources as always the primary sources, and commercially published versions behind paywalls as radically inferior secondary sources. No doubt that there are also things missing from my lists above that should be there, but I am too dumb to spot, or that matter to different disciplines in ways I can’t see yet. So this is just a starting proposal, something to get the process of discussion started.

Further resources

How citations work, and how to track them, are discussed in more depth in my co-authored book, Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler, Maximizing the Impacts of Academic Research: How to grow the influence, practical application and public knowledge of science and scholarship (originally Macmillan, 2021, now Bloomsbury Press), Chapters 1 and 2.



A collection of resources that provide real practical help for researchers writing creative non-fiction. See also: @Write4Research

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