This post has perhaps the single most unriveting title that a Crooked Timber post has ever had (although there are arguably some other close contenders). But it’s motivated by some real annoyance. I’ve been dealing with a major project which has moved from one publishing venue to another, and am now checking to make sure that all the authors have switched over to the new bibliographical format, with brackets in the right places, journal volume number but not issue number, and all of the rest of that nonsense Which made me think about the considerable transaction costs that this involves for authors of academic articles and books. Most publications and presses in the social sciences have their unique house style, which one has to conform to in order to get something published.
You can maybe tell a functionalist story about why there are some differences in bibliographical styles between disciplines – lawyers likely do have good reason to have those long confusing footnotes bristling with references. Within disciplines however, the continuing differences between journals are perhaps in part the result of path dependence (which in this case is little more than a fancy term for laziness on the part of the publishers; they’ve always done it this way and see no reason to change), in part the result of prestigious journals trying to reduce the flow of submissions by making prospective authors pre-commit some effort to sprucing up the bibliography before they submit a piece, so that they are less likely to submit a bad article on the off-chance. But surely this can’t explain why less prestigious journals too have their own house styles – one would think that those journals towards the lower end of the prestige rankings have an incentive to make it as easy as possible for authors to submit pieces. So I suspect that there is something else going on which isn’t strictly rational – a perception on the part of editors/publishers that to be a ‘real’ journal, one has to have one’s own particular hoops to make authors jump through. But then I’m writing as someone who has never edited an academic journal, nor seen any of the internal politics around these decisions – if anyone out there has more facts, or indeed more fact-free speculations along the lines presented here, comment away.