• A Brief History of Academic Citation Styles

    A Brief History of Academic Citation Styles


    The first evidence of writing traces back to Sumeria over 4,000 years ago. What started as a way to record the transaction of goods across trade routes, writing has evolved into the complex system that we know of today. Crucial developments in science and society depend on the documentation and communication of ideas across time and space. As an academic, it is important to properly reference and credit the ideas and information that your thesis will be founded upon.

    What is Citation Indexing?

    Citation Indexing is the process of identifying and documenting the source of information from other authors in your own written work. This is important because students, researchers, and academics are frequently building off the research of others. A botanist writing on plant life in the Amazon Rainforest will need to cite academic journals on weather patterns in South America and their impact on soil conditions.

    Providing citations has four key benefits:

    1. The original author gets credit for being the source of information, conserving academic integrity and protecting against plagiarism.
    2. The reader may use citations to dig deeper into the subject for further readings. This is especially useful for the development of ideas across multiple disciplines.
    3. Citations allow the reader to independently verify that the information referenced is correct and accurately supports the writer’s position.
    4. The reader may follow the citation to the portion of the original paper to clarify the context and to gain understanding on the subject the citation is attached to.

    Modernization of Citation Indexing in the 20th Century

    Prior to the 1950s, most indexing was done manually by independent subject specialists. This required specialists who understood the terminologies to go through articles, journals, and academic papers and document any citations. This was a time-consuming and tedious effort prone to human errors.

    After World War II, the US federal government injected millions of dollars into research and development. Traditional methods of indexing were slow and inefficient, such that subject specialists struggled to keep up with the increasing volume of research. Researchers complained of the processing time, specifically the bottleneck caused by manual citation indexing. Also, the independent nature of the subject specialists gave rise to inconsistent terminology across different fields of research which made it difficult to connect information.

    Most Popular Citation Guidelines Today

    These challenges inspired organizations to create their own guidelines. Today, there are more than 9,000 different citation styles, but three are the most commonly used:

    • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) - One of the oldest citation styles created in 1906, CMS is often required by professional publishers. It is typically used for writing in the fields of History, Fine Art, Anthropology, and Philosophy.
    • Modern Language Association (MLA) - The MLA citation style, first introduced in 1951, is often the preferred format for high schools and universities, and is typically used for English, Literature, Communication, and Religious Studies.
    • American Psychological Association (APA) - Introduced in 1929 and developed into a full publication manual in 1952, the style is typically used for technical and scientific writing including Psychology, Education, Business, and Economics.

    The Two Citation Systems

    Each citation style has its own rules and guidelines. However, there are only two options on how citations should be formatted — Vancouver or Parenthetical. The Vancouver system uses numbers in brackets or subscripts to identify the citation. The reader then finds the corresponding number in the footnote or endnotes for the full citation. With the Parenthetical system, the citation is added in parentheses within the body of the text directly after the information cited.

    There are pros and cons to each system. The Vancouver system is inconspicuous but requires the reader to search for the citation within the book or paper. The Parenthetical system makes the information easier to find but it takes up a lot of space on the page and can be distracting to the reader, especially if the paper is citation-heavy.

    Regardless, a citation must provide enough information to accurately and easily direct the reader back to the original source. For example, when referencing a scientific article, you should include the name of the journal, article, author, time of publication, and page numbers.

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