Citations

From time to time when reading I let off steam about citation styles that frustrate me. Each style (footnote, endnote, in-text) has its uses and each is also ameliorated or exacerbated by the actual style guide one follows in the reference.[1] I am militantly pro-footnote and this comment found on Twitter basically sums up my issue with most other citation styles:

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Citations (in my opinion) are supposed to serve two, linked functions: to support the argument made in the main text and to provide a roadmap for the reader back to the sources that support the argument. A lack of citations either expects the reader to take the text on faith that it is “correct” or otherwise presupposes that the audience has no interest/desire/need to see the source structure underpinning the text. In-text citations, while sometimes useful, tend to disrupt the flow of the text. Endnotes (and, I would add, any citation style that defers important information) supplies the structure, but does so in such a way that, if the reader wants to find that information, s/he has to interrupt reading to flip to the back of the book. As noted above, this disrespects the reader’s time, but it also disrespects the reader’s attention and so it is endnotes that I want to turn to in more detail.

I have heard two explanations for endnotes (particularly as an alternative to footnotes), but find neither satisfactory. The first is that footnotes are preferable except where the author has chosen to write mini essays in the footnotes–in the introduction to Meta History, for instance, Hayden White has a two and a half page footnote that would, perhaps, be less disruptive to the text if it was in an endnote. Of course, putting this one note as an endnote would almost necessitate moving the other footnotes into the endnotes. And, as full disclosure, I find footnotes to be underutilized in most prose and found David Foster Wallace’s fn use pleasant. I am always aware that on this issue I may be aberrant. [2]

The second argument is that endnotes are a publishing decision trying to balance the needs of an academic audience with the need to appeal to a broader audience that may be intimidated by footnotes. What galls me about the latter argument is that it still presupposes that some significant portion of the potential audience is unequipped to grapple with, unwilling to look at, or otherwise allergic to citations. First, I want to see some sort of evidence (with citations!) provided by publishers that proves that the actual audience of a book would be turned off by footnotes. This means that the evidence cannot merely cite low sales, but would need to demonstrate that books with the same audience, density of subject, and fame of authors and differ primarily in citation styles have different sales/circulation rates AND that the citations were at the root of that difference. Second, IF the citations really did play that big a role in the sale of books, then I would suggest it speaks volumes for the state of education that showing the process of research and writing is so intimidating that given two comparable books, the reader is going to prefer the one without the reference on the page to the one with for that reason.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to prefer books that use endnotes–some of those books are valuable pieces of scholarship, but putting the citations in the back of the book is the easiest way to discourage the reader from bothering to look too closely at the sources. I do not check every footnote that I come across, either, but it comforts me to be able to easily and quickly check the source(s) in question without needing to flip the page.


[1] For instance, any style that provides minimal information and largely defers the actual reference to a bibliography or works cited is more unhelpful than helpful, in my opinion. It is possible to say that this method reduces redundancy in the text, but redundancy in the text makes it significantly easier to use.

[2] I am okay being aberrant. There are also different standards for different media. Footnotes have not caught on on Twitter, while page-length footnotes seem to work better in literary fiction, literary non-fiction, and perhaps blog posts, than the do in monographs where the point of the footnote is meant for citation rather than extended discussion. Then again, sometimes convention, even convention that is used so as not to let the form distract from the content, needs to be set aside.

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