If you need a flowchart to cite an article, you’re doing it wrong

APA_flowchartSo the APA just recently published a new edition of their style manual, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.  And hoo, boy: what a mess.  Among other things, they’ve made substantial changes to the way writers are supposed to cite journal articles accessed online, especially via licensed subscription databases.

This blog post is likely to get a bit ranty, so just to keep myself focused on the topic at hand, let me get a couple of preliminary mini-rants off my chest first:

  • The MLA just released a new edition of their style manual last spring.  Two at the same time?  Shoot me now.  Librarians across the continent have been scrambling to update guides, figure out which citation tools are working with which editions of which manuals, figure out which faculty members are working with which manuals (real quote from a faculty member:  “there’s another new edition? I haven’t updated to the last new edition yet!”) etc.  I think it’s all a terrorist plot.
  • The first printing needed seven supplemental pages of corrections for all the errors that made it through the publication process.  Seven pages of corrections? Did nobody proofread the danged thing?  (Inside Higher Education has a great piece on the errors and corrections; my favorite bit is when the editorial director for APA books says that the manual was “very complicated to put together.”  Um, yeah, it’s a style manual:  of course it’s complicated.  It’s your job to make sure it’s also correct.

Okay, so now that we’ve got those things taken care of, let’s get down to discussing the changes for how to cite articles obtained through subscription databases:

First off, the new style dictates that if there is a digital object identifier (DOI) for an article, you should include it in your citation.  All well and good.  I have nothing against DOIs; they’re mighty handy things, and I can imagine that, like ISBNs, they will only become more widely-used and understood by the academic community.  There will surely be some education required for students (and, dare I say it, faculty) about DOIs:  what they are, how to identify them, etc., but I think they’ll catch on quickly.  Look at how quickly students picked up on the usefulness of ISBNs once they discovered online purchasing of textbooks.  Now, sending authors (read: students) to sites like crossref.org to try to find a DOI when it’s not included in the index or on the first page of the article is an added complication that I don’t think anyone is happy about, but again:  it’s not a huge deal.

No, the huge deal is here:  what you’re supposed to do if there is no DOI for the article.  As I read the flowchart, in most cases where there is no DOI, and you accessed the article through a licensed database, you’re supposed to list the homepage URL of the journal.

Say what now?

Take a moment to think about this.  Say a student found an article in the Journal of Underwater Basketweaving through Academic Search Premier.  She’d have to construct a citation that looked like this (apologies for the lack of hanging indent):

Oliver, C. D. (1981). New developments in basketology: Weaving the strands toward a new science. Journal of Underwater Basketweaving, 3, 153-168.  <http://www.basketology.org>.

Now, there are three kinds of problems with this rule: logistical problems, practical problems, and epistemological problems.

Logistical Problems

The APA guide makes a passing reference to “oh, you may have to do a quick web search to find the publisher of the journal, but it shouldn’t be too big of a deal.”  Oh, really?  When journals change publishers on a regular basis, and old websites linger in Google’s cache?  When multiple iterations of a journal title (Journal of Sociology, American Journal of Sociology, Journal of the Sociological Association of America, Journal of Sociological Research) abound? Does a URL, copied in 2009, that looks like this: http://www.elsevier.com/basket_journal do a reader in 2011 any good if that journal was sold to Wiley in 2010?

Practical Problems

If, as I’ve always assumed, the point of a citation is to give the reader the necessary information to locate the full text of the item in question, how exactly does having the home page of the journal (or its publisher) help the reader?  While open access is a fine and grand thing, it isn’t exactly the coin of the realm, nor is that situation likely to change drastically in the near future.  Most articles on most publishers’ web sites, if they’re there at all, are only available for a fee to subscribers.  Any researcher who’s going to attempt to locate a source cited in an APA-format paper is going to go (we fervently hope) to his/her institution’s licensed resources first, not to the publisher’s home page.  So that URL, even if it is still accurate when it’s read years later, is practically useless.

Epistemological Problems

Again, the purpose of the citation:  it’s essentially saying to the reader, “here is where I found this information.”  By citing the home page of the journal, the author is essentially saying, “I found this information at http://www.basketology.org.”  When s/he did nothing of the sort:  s/he found it in Academic Search Premier, or PsycINFO, or JSTOR, or wherever.  How on earth are we supposed to explain and justify this to our students?  When we tell them, “you have to cite your sources so that your reader can find the same information that you found,” how does that URL fit into the plan?

The answer is, it doesn’t.  It doesn’t make any sense at all to me, and it smacks of intellectual dishonesty.  You know, the kind of thing we’re supposed to be socializing our students not to do.  Which is why I think it’s a load of bunk, and I’m sorely tempted to simply advise students to cite the article as though it was print and just ignore all the madness.

In fact, that’s exactly what I advised a faculty member recently, when she told me she had a stack “this high” of printouts of articles that she’d downloaded from CINAHL, but she had no idea when (this was when retrieval dates were still part of APA style).  “What am I supposed to do about the retrieval dates for these?” she asked.  “Ignore it,” I told her, “just cite them as though they were print.  Your reader will still be able to find the sources, and that’s all that matters.”

Update, 10/21/09Barbara Fister, writing for ACRLog, covers much the same ground, with way more style and panache than I’ve managed here, plus ties the whole issue into carbon footprints!