Searching for the Best Referencing System

All scientific or scholarly works contain references (perhaps this is true by definition). As you probably know there are different referencing systems to choose from and different journals and book publishers use different systems. University students are often free to choose which system to use as long as they use it correctly and consistently, and people seldom argue about which systems are better than others. I maintain, however, that it can be argued that some systems are actually better than others. Here I will discuss the pros and cons of the systems I mostly come across (mainly in philosophy and the social sciences), going from worst to best.

Endnotes with reference at the end of the chapter: This is the most annoying system, since you have to find the end of the chapter before you can look up the reference, and then you have to keep, for instance, a finger at that place when you’re reading if you want to look up more references. Even more annoying when you’re reading electronic books or articles (unless they contain hyperlinks to the references).

Endnotes with reference at the end of the book (or article): quite annoying, but not as annoying as the above-mentioned system. It is generally less cumbersome to go back to the end of the book than to the end of the chapter. Personally I think endnotes should be abolished altogether, at least for works directed to scholars and researchers (who I assume are actually interested in the references).

Footnote, Oxford style: The reference is found at the bottom of the page. The first time the work is mentioned everything about the reference is written out: author, title, year, publisher. This is helpful if you immediately want to know what work is being referenced. However, the next time the work is being referenced only “op. cit” is written out (even if it has been a hundred pages since the last reference), and this means that you either have to remember what work was being referenced or go back and find the first reference to the work in question. It is a workable system if you have very few references (or many references mentioned only once), but otherwise it is quite annoying.

Footnote, Harvard style: Under the Harvard style of referencing only the last name of the author, the printing year and the page number is written out (like this: Smith 1975: 45). To get full information about the reference (most importantly the title of the book or article) one must go the the reference list at the back of the book (or sometimes the end of the chapter). The advantage with this system is that you immediately get the name of the author being referenced (which you do not get with endnotes). The main disadvantage is that even if you know the author, you still don’t know exactly which work is referenced, and a specialized scholar often wants to know that.

Parenthesis, Harvard style: So, in the Harvard system the references can be put in a footnote or in a parenthesis directly in the text (the latter can probably be called the more “pure” Harvard system). It is largely a matter of taste or aesthetics which one one prefers. Personally I think parentheses are better, but some people think it disturbs the flow of the text. Moreover, I often find it aesthetically displeasing with many short footnotes on the bottom of the page, while others do not care about that at all. An additional advantage of the parentheses style is that your eyes don’t have to wander down to the bottom of the page and then up again. Your reading flow can be maintained without interruption (unless, again, you believe parentheses disturb your flow even more).

Footnote with name of work: This is similar to Harvard style footnotes (I don’t think it would work well with parentheses), but instead of the printing year you write out the name of work (but probably omitting any subtitles). This is the system I prefer, although I seldom use it, because no academic journal uses it (at least no journal I can think of right now). I really can’t see any disadvantages with this system. you immediately know what work is being referenced – i.e., you don’t have go back and forth in the book. You only have to go to the actual reference list if you want to retrieve the referenced work for yourself and need, for instance, the name and volume of the journal, or if you have a very specialized interest regarding, for instance, what edition or translation is being used.

In conclusion, people often think that it’s no big deal which referencing system you use; but my contention is the choice makes an actual difference when it comes to the reading experience for the reader. You should not annoy your readers more than you have to.

Ceterum censeo that block quotes should be abolished.