How should you be recording citations in the digital era?

We need to move away from ‘legacy’, print-orientated practices and give priority to citing open access text sources

Academic references have stayed the same for too long, so that right across the world, and across most disciplines, students and academics are still solemnly recording useless citation information (e.g. place of publication for global publishers) and not recording vital information (e.g. where to access the open access version of the cited text). In a separate piece on Medium (and a shorter version on LSE Impact blog) I make the case for radical change in our citation practices. This longer argument is meant for university insiders, publishers and librarians — not for rank and file academics and PhD students.

Yet all of us need to be prepared for a tidal wave of change that is coming. Because most universities, and many academics and PhD supervisors have not woken up to the need for change yet, there is a danger that people will go on accumulating complete Endnote or Cross Ref or Mendeley reference systems that are actually stuffed with the wrong information (that won’t be needed) and exclude key details that will very soon be essential to have . So this blog just focuses on what publication details you need to be sure to collect.

For books:

  • Author full first name, second initial and last name. Collect fewer details than this (e.g. only author first initial) and you are heading for grief in an increasingly globalized academic world. Repeat for other authors up to a limit — e.g. first five or ten authors only, and then use et al.
  • Full book 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. This is composed of this bit of gobbledegook, http://dx.doi.org/ followed immediately by the DOI number assigned by publishers to all commercial books. Giving the DOI number alone doesn’t help most readers, whereas an immediately clickable URL will get them straight to the publisher version of the text. Be very careful in recording details here — the DOI number is a long chain of meaningless numbers, so easy to get wrong. And there are 85 million of them already.
  • If you are an open access advocate, and an OA version of the book text is available (much rarer than for articles), then you might want to make clear that the commercial version is a secondary source. Put: ‘Also available as …’ in front of the DOI number in this case.
  • The name of the commercial publisher.

For journal articles:

  • 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 academia.edu or Research Gate). In the UK virtually all articles more than six months old will be available in OA format from 2016 (thanks to new government funding regulations), and the practice is spreading in Europe and the USA also.
  • The DOI permanent URL to the commercial text, that is, http://dx.doi.org/ followed immediately by the DOI number. Again if an OA version is available, you can 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 without abbreviations, for instance: pp. 150-179.
  • Other legacy elements can be added to taste. The volume and issue numbers that many journals still assign, and that publishers with poor quality, old fashioned databases still use to organize how people acess their texts, are in fact largely pointless. However, you had best record them where they are still in use. Again record these details in a transparent way, without using codes, brackets etc. For instance: vol. 67, no. 4.

For ‘grey’ literature

(that is, conference papers, working papers, reports, media sources, blogs and shorter or less formally published materials generally)

  • 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. Be warned — many ‘grey’ literature sources are still published with no author names on title pages, or only names that are hard to find.
  • 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. Again, it is worth being aware that many ‘grey’ literature sources are still published with no dates, or dates that are hard to find (e.g. buried at the bottom of blogs).
  • 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). 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 ensure that their reports have web URLs that do not change. In this case, you don’t need to record an access date.
  • If this is not available, then give a shortened, non-permanent URL linking to the publishing organization’s website or other location where the item was accessed. Wherever you cite non-permanent URLs, or you are unsure of the URL’s permanence, you still also need to add: ‘Accessed on [give full date]’.
  • The place of publication is relevant still for ‘grey’ literature, as is the full name of the organization publishing the item. If the organization is also known by its initials (e.g. OECD or IMF), record these too, but never rely on acronyms alone (even for companies that have stopped using their full names, like HP).
  • 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.

Getting prepared

That’s it. If you follow these practices, you are future-proofed against likely changes in citation demands from journals and publishers as they slowly wean themselves off paper-orientated reference systems and move towards fully digital referencing, hopefully in a form that assigns priority to open access versions of texts.

Oh, and by the way, if this advice differs from what your supervisor, department, lab or university is currently telling PhDers and early career researchers about collecting citations and literature references, you may need to use some discretion. Why not send a copy of this blog to them suggesting that they may need to wise up to coming changes?

To help keep up to date, please see my Twitter account @Write4Research and the many commentators on the LSE’s Impact blog