What’s up with in-house styles?

There are tens of thousands of citation styles. Why are people still developing their own?

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Whenever I teach a course on Citavi, I ask the participants to send me their expectations and questions in advance. Inevitably I’ll get the question “How do I cite correctly?”. I wish I could say, “Here’s how: first, list the last name of the author, then a comma, then the first name…” and so on. Instead, I need to say, “There’s no one right way to cite”. That’s because many disciplines have their own idea about just what constitutes “correct” citation.

Even though the rules differ, there is at least some general consensus about which information should be included in the bibliography. Nearly all citation styles include the following: author, title, year, and journal name. That’s because without this information it’s difficult for a reader to locate the sources if they want to check a quotation or claim for themselves.

But that’s where the commonalities end. Academics don’t even agree on something as basic as where to place citations: they can either be in the footnotes or in the text. The footnote method is the older of the two; in-text citations only started being used widely in the 20th century as we explored in this previous blog post.

Then there’s the appearance of the citations and bibliography entries. Each citation style has different ideas about where each piece of information should appear, which punctuation should be used, and how it all should be formatted.

It makes sense that each academic discipline developed its own traditional citation practices over time. Medical researchers didn’t need special rules for citing legal commentaries, for example. Long footnotes full of the author’s additional commentary are also unnecessary; all that is needed is a number in the text that points to the corresponding source in the bibliography.

Why do some people still develop their own “in-house” citation styles?

While citation traditions can explain how we got to a point where there are tens of thousands of styles used by publishers and journals, one question remains unanswered.
Why are new or modified citation styles still being created today? It’s especially a problem at German universities, as I’ve seen firsthand. Sometimes the university as a whole will develop its own detailed style guidelines, but if not, then it’s the academic department, a specific subject area or individual professors.

Why is this the case? Here are a few of my hypotheses for why so many institutions decide to create their own recommendations instead of using existing guidelines:

  • The perception that citation guidelines don’t cover everything or aren’t up to date
    A quick search in WorldCat for “academic writing” returns more than 30,000 results. In addition to general works there are also a lot of books geared towards individual disciplines, for example “Academic writing for philosophy students”. In these works, students can find guidance on how to cite sources and the general citation practices of the discipline.

    A university or department could simply adopt one of these works as a standard for students to follow. Why don’t they? One reason could be that the guidelines are no longer current. For example, some guides might not include information on how to cite social media. So, an instructor might decide to use a guide as the basis for their own style but then add additional rules or modifications for new reference types.

    In addition to academic writing guides for new students, some citation guidelines have been developed with the goal of standardization in mind, such as the international ISO 690 citation style. However, at least one country-specific variant of this style falls short, as we looked at in an earlier blog post. The DIN ISO 690 citation style in Germany is contradictory and often unclear. For this reason, we can’t recommend this citation style for use at universities.

  • The instructor isn’t aware of existing guidelines
    It could be that instructors who develop a new style for a university, department, or course simply don’t know that there are already frequently used styles in their discipline. They’ve always used the requirements created by their individual professors, departments, or institutions and so they think it’s normal to create their own style as well.

    As a result, the students of this instructor also never learn that there are existing citation styles for their discipline.

  • The authors of guidelines want recognition
    Perhaps some individuals create their own guidelines to position themselves as experts in their field. In this way, the motivations behind style creation might be similar to those behind active participation in academic social networks.
    At many German universities, guidelines have come to be known by their author’s name, similarly to how “Turabian” has come to designate the modified Chicago style that Kate Turabian developed. It follows that creating a style could lead to greater recognition by one’s department and peers.

  • Developing individual rules can save time

    If a citation style is used that an instructor is unfamiliar with, the grading of the citations and bibliography entries in papers can take longer. For example, in the APA citation style if a first initial appears in an in-text citation, the instructor will need to check the bibliography to see if two authors with the same last name are listed. It’s easier to simply take out rules like this from one’s own customized version of a style. In addition, when an instructor creates their own style, they’ll know it inside and out making it faster for them to grade papers.

    In addition, it could also be the case that in the curriculum for a particular course or major there just isn’t enough time to teach students an individual guide or general citation principles. Alternatively, the guide for a particular discipline might only be available in another language and for that reason would take longer to decipher.

  • Most popular style handbooks cost money
    Unfortunately, well-known style guidelines such as APA are not available for free and need to be purchased. If there’s not enough copies in the library to go around, the cost might prohibit instructors and students from using these works.

Why shouldn’t new in-house citation styles be created?

Although some of the reasons listed above are indeed valid, I still believe that instructors should try harder to make use of existing guidelines whenever they can. In addition to making citation less confusing for students, there are two other major reasons why.

First, the current situation in Germany leads to higher costs. Although no studies have been done that examine how high the costs for the development and implementation of in-house citation styles are, we can at least take a look at where we’d expect to find them:

  • Instructors spend time creating and formulating citation guidelines instead of publishing new research.
  • Students need to read, learn, and use the new guidelines. In the worst-case scenario, they’ll need to do this for each instructor.
  • Libraries and writing centers need to help students with questions or by creating a style for the university’s reference management software.

If the adage about time being money is true, all this activity does indeed have a cost.

A second reason is that in-house styles are often inconsistent, incomplete, and contain errors. Even well-known citation styles leave questions open. For example, not all reference types are taken into account, examples might be missing for certain combinations of rules, or there are contradictory rules or typos. If that’s the case even for guidelines that have gone through many revisions and new editions, imagine how many more errors there are likely to be in a citation style created by one person. We in fact see this every day in our support team when students send us style guidelines for review.

To improve the situation, I wish that all students in their first semester would be required to take a semester-long course on academic research and writing in which they would learn how to use one of the standard guides (and also digital tools). Our North American readers right now will be nodding in agreement, because there it is common to have such a course and to purchase or use a library reserve copy of MLA or APA, which students can then practice using and come to understand. Of course, depending on their major, students might later need to work with a different style, but in most cases,  it will still be a well-documented one, such as Chicago or Vancouver. German universities could make use of one of the many translations of commonly used styles. For example, there’s a very close adaptation of the APA citation style used in Germany published by the German Society of Psychology.

I expect that it will take a while before things change. At least knowing that there’s more than one right way to cite can be helpful for students trying to make sense of the requirements they’ve been given. Although reference management software can help with some of the busy work involved in bibliography formatting, students will of course always need to understand the principles and general rules behind citation so that they can check entries for themselves and make sure necessary information is included. By being able to use a standard style that they understand well in most of their courses, they could devote more time and energy to what really matters: the content of their papers.

Why do you think so many in-house citation styles are created in Germany but not in North America and other parts of the world? What’s the situation like in your country? And do you agree that there should be greater use of established styles? Please share your thoughts with us on Facebook!

Created by: Jana Votteler – Published on: 6/30/2020
Tags: Citation Good to know


About Jana Votteler

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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