Monday, May 7, 2012

Citing Sources

In my most recent post introducing my on-going series on the 2012 elections, I went on at some length about “doing one's homework.” I hold myself to that same standardwith at least some consistency, I hope. A reader might have noticed that I cite my sources in many, if not most, of my posts and thought I should give a brief account of my thinking regarding citation styles. As an undergraduate I took upper-level classes from many different disciplines: physics, engineering, geology, biology, and political science...to name a few. The default citation format I cut my teeth on was the venerable Modern Language Association (MLA) style. This makes sense when one considers that most undergrad's are introduced to writing “scholarly” papers not within their own major, but in courses taught by faculty from the English department.
One of the things I like about the MLA style is that it is set up to handle a very wide range of sources, from peer-reviewed journals to on-line videos of scientific symposia and just about everything in-between. Like many students, I used a bibliographic citation software package, specifically, EndNote. However, EndNote is very expensive and I was delighted when I learned of Zotero, a free, open-source alternative to EndNote and its pricey competitors.
For a professor grading a stack of papers written by undergrads, the MLA style is nearly ideal because the in-text citations are obvious (or very "in-your-face," depending on one's mood) and are easy to reconcile with the list of “works cited” at the end of the paper. I get that. Though I am no longer a student, I still want to show that I have done my homework in what I write, but the very thing that makes MLA great for professors grading papers, the obviousness of the in-text citations, makes a MLA formatted paper hard to read if the writer actually wants someone that is not an English professor to read it because the effect is visually quite jarring.
After some playing around with the Citation Style Language (CSL) used by Zotero, I have found that I really like the in-text citation format used by the British journal Nature. It consists of a simple, unobtrusive, superscript within the text which corresponds to the entry in the references at the end of the paper. However, the Nature style is not set up to handle nearly the same diversity of sources that MLA is, so I have had to tweak it a bit to make it work. It is still very much a work in progress and so if a reader cannot easily place the citation style I use, now they know why.