A homily on APA citation style

I’ve been doing some work lately using the APA citation style, and I hate every moment of it.

This may seem like an exaggeration—after all, it’s just a citation style. It’s purely a means of conveying information. So long as all the same information gets across, the difference between one style and another is purely cosmetic. Of course you might prefer one over the other, but it seems needlessly petty to hate a citation style.

So what is my beef with the APA? To name a few things:

Citations are in-text. This always makes a document messy and difficult to read. APA style says that with anything up to and including five authors, you need to list all of them on the in-text citation. This makes huge breaks in the flow of text, which translates to huge gaps in the flow of thought. And, let’s face it: lots of academics have funny names. It’s distracting.

Another name-related problem: the APA style emphasizes authors’ names and de-emphasizes titles. This means that something like “(Prendergast, van Schmuijens, and Koop, 2006)” is meant to stand in for “A Retrospective Study of Data Collection by Mental Health Organizations” (no page numbers, of course, that would be gauche). How do you remember that “Prendergast, van Schmuijens, and Koop” is supposed to stand for that? Because you’re an academic and you’re friends with Prendergast, van Smuijens, and Koop. Anyone who doesn’t go to the right cocktail parties is at a severe disadvantage in reading these articles. This feature of APA style so effectively promotes academics’ careers at the expense of communication that you have to think they designed it that way on purpose.

By way of contrast, my own field (music) uses the “whichever one you happen to like the best” style guide, so I’ve always used Chicago. Citations in Chicago are typically done in footnotes (they can be in-text, but in practice they’re usually footnotes or endnotes). The footnotes constitute a parallel text to the main text that can contain parenthetical expansions, directions to further reading, anecdotes, and jokes. This means that the main text stays uncluttered, and that authors are encouraged to expand upon their citations. Titles and page numbers are given for every citation.

This is not just an issue of cosmetics or even the availability of information. It constitutes a totally different way of thinking about references. To use computer analogies, the Chicago method construes references as hyperlinks: they direct you somewhere you can find more information or verify what has just been said. It allows the author to qualify or comment on the value of a source. Thus, it demands acknowledgment up front that you are reading a text that can be criticized, and it directs you to other texts that can be criticized.

On the other hand, APA treats citations as “includes”. A computer program has just one continuous effective text, but this text tends to be broken up through several different files and copied automatically into the main stream of text as needed. A computer can do this. A person cannot. The rhetoric of the social sciences treats “(Prendergast, van Schmuijens, and Koop, 2006)” not as a direction to read the corresponding study, but as a shorthand that straightforwardly copies the chunk of knowledge that study represents into the present context. It glosses over the fact that this may not always be possible or even desirable. Moreover, it glosses over the fact that the source may not actually say what the present author claims it does.

Fundamentally, APA citation is dishonest, in exactly the same ways that the field of psychology is dishonest. I’m not OK with that.

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One thought on “A homily on APA citation style

  1. Interesting point. I’m not much of a fan of APA either but, being a scientist by degree, I like having a numbered list of references at the end, with numbers in square brackets in the text, almost like endnotes. In science we don’t do much in terms of footnotes, much less jokes (shock horror) but I like that Chicago has room for that, though as a reader it can be clunky when you want to get straight to the meat of what you need to Google next… . It’s funny that different styles of referencing really are about different uses of a text, from the ‘academic cocktail party’ style of APA, to your ‘interesting down-the-rabbit-hole journey’ of Chicago, to science’s ‘Information, Here, Now’.

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