Lord, save us from author date systems
If, as some would have it, academic disciplines are tribes, among our self-defining rituals — our handshakes or our body-art — is the manner of citations. We historians are guardians of the footnote. Publishers may force us at times to soil our handiwork with endnotes, but for us the gold standard of referencing is the full information of the work being cited — author, title, publication details, precise page — placed at the foot of the page in a smaller font than the text, and with a direction to the note placed surreptitiously in the body of our prose as a superscript number. Our tribe sub-divides: some prefer to gather their references together and place a single footnote at the end of a paragraph, a practice than can work but can also be a charlatan’s charter, allowing unfounded assertions to be smuggled into the argument under cover of the other citations. Another clan takes footnote numbers for stardust and sprinkles them across the page, accompanying most nouns, and some adjectives, with a superscript. Me, I belong to those who prefer one footnote per sentence, placed after the full-stop as part of the punctuation. No breaking the flow of the sentence but a gathering of sources close to where they have been mentioned.
Others in our family of tribes — the humanities — share this citation system but not those who see themselves as scientific. I have an archaeologist friend who mocks our manners, considering an ‘author date system’ preferable. To his way of seeing, the presence of footnotes breaks up the page. We, in our turn, find the practice of citing by surname and year, within the text, referring the reader to the bibliography for full details quite other — by which we really mean lesser. It is inelegant, interrupting the prose with phrases like Andrews and van Dyke 1964 in a way that we find much more intrusive than a slender number slid into a sentence-break. It can also, depending on the particular system (for these, too, are a series of peoples, not one tribe alone), be imprecise, failing to provide the page reference to pinpoint where the specific statement was made. It is also liable to error — I have found occasions when the work cited in the text has not been entered in the bibliography.
But I have been conversing recently with those who speak this language, as I have been reading some works in the discipline of educational studies. I might grace this with the grand title of ‘research’ but, in truth, I am only looking at recent writings (as opposed to the historians’ holy of holies, the primary source) and those on the internet. I have much to learn but I am also seeing practices that I find concerning: not in major publications themselves but in how the style of scholarship is being mimicked — or pastiched — elsewhere. I am not going to point fingers — it is a practice, not an individual instance that I am highlighting — so let me talk of an example that we can call Anon. 2014. It is a page on a British university website, discussing a topical issue in educational studies. It provides a paragraph of texts which bristles with author-dates. It is followed, on a separate line, by a hyphen followed by a link to a document on another university’s website. Click on that and you find that the paragraph you have just read is a direct quotation.
In a culture where plagiarism has become one of the greatest academic sins, this practice sails close to a cold wind: no quotation marks to signify it is not original statement, no explanatory text, only a slender hyphen to carry the force of ‘the above paragraph is quoted from…’. Perhaps I will be told this reveals my tribally-based way of seeing; perhaps other disciplines have a yet more subtle use of the minutiae of punctuation than history does. It is not, in fact, this to which I want to draw attention.
It is, rather, the manner in which Anon. 2014 replicates text complete with citations by author and date but does not give on the page a bibliography to explain those references. Let me repeat: this is only an example. In my recent travels, my little boat surfing the internet (and sometimes crashing), I have found several instances where webpages or uploaded presentations include only one half of an author date system: the citation without the concomitant bibliography. This strips the architecture of the citation system of its essential foundations, leaving the short references unbuttressed with full information.
But, you clamour, consider the medium: these are webpages or PowerPoints, and for those the standards are different — after all, does bonae litterae include footnotes? The answer, of course, is no — this site, unlike some impressive medievalist blogs, consciously does not provide citations. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the web allows an even more elegant solution of embedded links which allows the reader to go straight to the source at the point the reference is made — it is not a fully scholarly solution, as it can suffer the imprecision of some author date systems, failing to point the specific page, but it can serve the purpose of this site. And that is the second reason: while there are nuggets of new information hidden herein for the truffle-hunting scholar to find, this is not a work of research; they are musings, first drafts, not polished learned prose. They pretend to nothing more — and that is the issue with Anon. 2014 et al. There is a pretension to scholarship that, even when it is not borrowed plumage, is inappropriate. It acts on the rituals of scientific scholarship without understanding their full import. Worse than that, it excludes: by providing citations in code but not explaining that code, it seems to be intended not just to impress but to impose upon the reader. It is not just a ritual, it is an academic haka.
To put it another way, the abuse of the author date system creates a sort of élitism. I do not mean this in the general sense that is in common parlance, where any élite is considered élitist and thus suspect, a usage which leaves begging the question of what we call the best in a meritocracy. I use the term, rather, in its narrower sense of the construction of a select group on a basis other than merit or ability. This is surely what happens when knowledge is presented in a manner which is intended to be impenetrable or unquestionable, the antithesis to our understanding of liberal enquiry. The likes of Anon. 2014 are not simply pretending to knowledge but also fraudulently claiming membership of an élite, in the process demeaning that élite, turning it into a clique.
I am well aware that in the anti-pantheon of sinners, élitists sit only a few circles above the well of plagiarists in the new academic inferno. I also appreciate that the practices I have described have not been created by bad men bent on a desire to be exclusive. They reflect a more human failing, into which all of us, whatever our tribe, can fall. To avoid the calamity of our weaknesses, we need our elders to bring us up in practices that keep us from erring. That, and a pious prayer to our tribal gods: Lord, save us.
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