Manual Labor

As if health care reform, the mess in Afghanistan, and H1N1 weren’t enough to ruin your day, having to cope with new editions of two major style manuals (neither of which actually keeps up with new information formats because they keep changing) is one of those “in the cosmic scale of thing it’s really incredibly trivial but ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!” events.

MLA has finally decided it doesn’t matter what library you were in when retrieved an article or what “service” happens to be selling your library a particular database this contract year. Ten points for the rationality team. But leaving out URLs because anyone can do a search and find a website? One with no discernible author and several phrases at the top of the page, any of which might be the title – or the site name – or the sponsor? All of which are commonplace phrases that retrieve 5 million possible URLs? Okaaaay…. Deduct five points and go stand in the corner.

But it’s undeniably APA that has won the World Series of Stupid Style Manual Changes. DOIs? Not a bad idea. Citing the web site of the journal? Bad idea. Issuing seven pages of corrections and making excuses by saying they are “nonsignificant” errors?


This could be the tipping point. The time has come for faculty and librarians working with undergraduates to loosen up. In the cosmic scale of things, this manual labor really is trivial, but it carries a huge carbon footprint. For every hour spent writing a paper, at least an equivalent hour is spent trying to figure out whether you need a comma or a period here, which city out of the six on the title page is the one to use, what database you printed that article out of, or trying to identify the website of a journal for an article published in 1986 that you printed off JSTOR, given the publication changed titles three times and switched publishers five time since then. As this activity always happens in the wee hours of the morning on the day the paper is due, lights and computers have to be running, so we’re talking about a major energy drain. That’s not counting the environmental damage caused while creating and shipping the large amounts of carbonated caffienated beverages consumed in the process. Or the evening hours of the professors who are doing much the same while marking papers. Or the librarians trying to update their websites, guides, and class materials.

And what exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references? You learn that research is a pain in the butt. You learn that it’s really, really important to follow pointless rules with utter scrupulousness. You learn that, at the end of the day, you’ll get points off because you didn’t follow the pointless rules – unless, of course, you’re making a bundle off book sales, in which case “nonsignificant” is a valid defense.

I recommend that librarians stop teaching citation styles. (Why did we get stuck with that job, anyway?) That professors stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead. That students are told “the reason we cite sources is because they serve as your expert witnesses; people need to know who these witnesses are, so provide their credentials, ones that readers can use to find the sources themselves, because they may want to learn more about the subject. That’s why we cite things. Oh, and to give credit where it’s due and avoid a plagiarism rap. That’s important, too.”

As for all those arcane rules? “Don’t worry about it. They’re nonsignificant. Just give me the information I need to find the source, and make it easy to read. That’s all I ask.”

We might not save the planet, but we would save a lot of pointless aggravation. Not to mention a few bucks buying updated style manuals.

CC-licensed photo courtesy of Jonno Witts; part of the Writer’s Block set.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

25 thoughts on “Manual Labor”

  1. The head of our writing center and I spent this past week conducting faculty workshops reviewing changes in APA 6th and coming to consensus on “APA for Undergraduates on our campus.” We all agreed that some of the new rules are ridiculous and do not make sense in an academic setting, and we are not going to teach them.

    APA is a publication manual, not a style manual. In the 5th edition, it explicitly stated that the rules within needed to be modified for student use. In the 6th edition, it stressed the need to be flexible and use your good judgment.

    It’s going to drive our students crazy- and it’s going to be really fun communicating our version to all the faculty- but what can you do?

  2. thank you thank you thank you. Citations are a mess. Having the goal of clearly stating your sources and how to find them is laudable. Making all these hoops to clarity … not a big fan. But it does give those of us at a reference desk an endless source of work.

  3. Adapting to make it work for your students is a very good idea.

    I really wish, though, that we could take all the time we spend on teaching and learning the formatting of citations and apply it to the writing process. Or research. Or playing with the baby. I’m not convinced learning a handful of different disciplinary guidelines is time well spent.

  4. Yes, let’s loosen up! I think everyone, from the style guide editors, to faculty, to all those science journals with their own citation style, should give a few basic examples and then say, “Do your best”. Think of the time and money saved!
    In fact, why can’t there be one generic citation style?

  5. My pet peeve on the new MLA: Specifying that an article was used in print, by adding the word “Print”. If you have full bibliograpic data already for a journal article, a reader does not need any more these days. I say drop the “Print” and “Online” tags altogether. What is MLA afraid of? Don’t they know any librarians? (Don’t get me started on their treatment of library research.)

    Also, about a generic style, and what might be important about citation practice, see my blog post at or the URL I have given for my website.

  6. I’m in 100% agreement. Our undergrads spend so much time killing themselves over how to correctly cite a table from an unsigned encyclopedia entry in Chicago style. With the database vendors increasingly offering “Cite this” buttons, learning the basic types of entries is often not even necessary. It’s the really difficult stuff they’re coming to us to, and even though I stress the importance of documenting sources in my instruction sessions, the details of comma placement in citing a census table don’t really seem all that vital. Perhaps faculty should work with their students on the fine details of APA style if that student is submitting a paper to an APA journal, but relax the standards for everyone else. I suppose there’s an argument that strict adherence to a style teaches an eye for detail, but shouldn’t we consider the details of using the source correctly to be more important?

  7. I’ve already had to query my psychology faculty about their preferences — and only two have any (not surprising!) — concerning old and new APA. Turns out they’re going to let upperclass students continue with the 5th edition, and want one library copy of the 6th to have the corrections tipped in, and have “uncorrected” noted on the other copies.

    Recently I’ve been telling students that style guides are probably the most anal part of research, but that the underlying reasons for citing sources are valid and important. I spend more time teaching why plagiarism is bad, and why we cite sources, than where to put commas and spaces. When I teach my own departmental classes, I usually suggest MLA, but end by saying, just use a consistent pattern that allows me to find the material you’re citing.

    What a revolution it would be if we could come to one style fits all!

  8. I couldn’t agree more, Barbara! I’ve been saying for years that bibliographic citation managers were going to put the style manuals out of business, but it appears that the style manual producers are determined to put themselves out of business.

    I’d like to see undergraduates focus on learning the actual parts of a citation so that they can create citations that others can use to locate the item. You know–citations as useful objects.

  9. And while we are at it, let’s consolidate everything into just one style manual. Who needs both APA and MLA and ASA etc. etc.?

    And then develop software that formats the citation once the students learn what the elements are and where to stick ’em.

    And, as Barb says, Why is this our job anyway? If the humanities and psych and social science profs want to each do things there own way, let them traumatize the students, not us.

  10. THis post reminded me that the Wall Street Journal, quite some time ago, featured an article about the insanity of trying to cope with all of these different citation formats, rules and styles. It’s not free online anymore but I did find the citation.

    June Kronholz. “Bibliography Mess: The Internet Wreaks Havoc With the Form,” Wall Street Journal, Volume 239 (May 2, 2002), Number 86, Pages A1-A6. Kronholz, writing for a general audience, has fun with the variety of acdemic styles — APA, Chciago, MLA, NISO, Council of Science Editors, NLM, plus the lawyers, the engineers, the musicians, and all the others. Kronholz’s news angle is how these meisters of style are dealing with Internet citations. The answer is no surprise: Each in its own way and not very satisfactorily considering, she says, “the anarchies of cyberspace.”

    I think this is it. Although I recall writing something about this issue before at acrlog – just can’t put my finger on it. Bottom line, I said we needed to stop trying to teach students how to format citations – and to just let the bibliographic software or databases format it for them.

  11. There is an old saying, “If it ain’t broke [pardon the grammar], don’t fix it.” Bottom line–the good folk at MLA should not be in the business of making perpetual changes to the existing format. All the changes lead to nothing but confusion and frustration . . . for everyone involved. I understand the need to make changes when you have new media forms entering the knowledge pool, but aside from these exceptions, why do they feel compelled to make continual alterations to existing media forms? It simply defies logic and good common sense.

  12. All this anxiety over the APA’s recent inability to produce an accurate update just reminds me of what one of my professor’s told me in graduate school [the recently departed Michael Rothacker of the no-longer-in-existence Vanderbilt (Peabody) library school]. I remember him telling us that he didn’t care what citation style we used, or if we made up our own, as long as he could tell where we got our information. The wisdom of that viewpoint just seems to get more and more obvious.

  13. I could not agree more! When all of this was devolving someone on a library list-serv commented that the APA Manual was not designed with freshmen in mind. Well that comment makes about as much sense as putting a screen door on a submarine! The fact is that professors expect freshmen to cite. In addition, certain disciplines lack an official style guide so students are expected to adapt. Problem is most students are really bad about adapting because they’ve never really had to cite in highschool!

    Take business for example, no official style. Some business schools modify Chicago while others modify APA. Neither is an effective and efficient fit. If I had a dollar for every hour I’ve spent modifying APA to work in the business world I’d be a richer man!

    Seriously: This seems like a perfect publishing opportunity for ALA. Why not gather interested librarians at the next conference, form a committee, and publish a Universal Style Guide?


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