The Political Economy of Bibliographies

by Henry Farrell on May 29, 2007

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.

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Bill Gardner 05.29.07 at 4:31 pm

I’m curious: this is a problem that your reference formatting software won’t address?


Matt 05.29.07 at 4:43 pm

“…lawyers likely do have good reason to have those long confusing footnotes bristling with references.”

Well, there are reasons, but I’m not sure they can be called _good_. (The complex reference on case cites do allow you to find exact locations in case reporters [or, more likely today, for lexis or westlaw to pull up the exact location in a case] but this could possibly be done w/o the arcane nature and without parentheticals and of couse doesn’t explain the huge number of foot-notes.) Sorry to distract from the main topic.


CalDem 05.29.07 at 5:10 pm

I use reference manager and its still some effort to make it comply with each journal’s requirements. not huge, but not trivial.


Eszter 05.29.07 at 5:13 pm

I agree that this can get very annoying. That said, referencing software should help. Of course, many people still don’t use such tools, which is a bummer for them, and I guess on occasion for others as well.


Stentor 05.29.07 at 5:30 pm

I would suggest three other factors:

1) There’s no powerful entity that can promulgate a standard and demand compliance — particularly since any given publisher is likely to have a consistent house style across multiple disciplines.

2) It’s difficult for any one press to lift the burden unilaterally. Podunk University Press could change their house style to make it easier for authors who are used to Routledge’s style, or to make it easier for authors who are used to Oxford, but it can’t do both, since Routledge and Oxford have different styles. And since the work of changing citations is a small part of the work involved in publishing, and is done by the authors anyway, the gain to a publisher of making their style consistent with one other publisher is miniscule.

3) There is no objectively best citation style whose goodness could attract publishers toward it. The choice between
Farrell, H. 2007. The political economy of bibliographies.
Farrell, H. (2007) “The Political Economy of Bibliographies.”
is pretty arbitrary.


Laura 05.29.07 at 5:46 pm

Sorry Henry. Very guilty. Hope we didn’t make a mess of things.


tom s. 05.29.07 at 6:03 pm

Reference software may help in the short run, but it may hinder in the long run.

If a distinct house style signals seriousness, then the key would be to look distinct enough (show you are independent, have your own standards etc) without imposing too high a cost on your prospective authors. By making it easier (but not easy) for authors to adapt to different house styles, the cost to the author is lowered.

That is, if people still had to do this manually, perhaps authors would turn away from some journals (too much work) or even band together and demand some more sane standard.

Of course, that doesn’t explain how it all evolved in pre-software days. Oh well.


Kieran Healy 05.29.07 at 6:41 pm

Hominids citing Chicago style held a distinct fitness advantage over APA competitors in the EEA.


Jackmormon 05.29.07 at 7:50 pm

Of course, that doesn’t explain how it all evolved in pre-software days.

The underpaid labor of graduate students and secretaries, none of whom were in a position to complain?


Alison 05.29.07 at 8:18 pm

It’s a big deal for all of us in the geek world.

I use RefWorks, which has the most bizarre input problems, so the output is very time intensive. Journal abbreviations show up as journal titles. Article titles are all capitals.

I like to have it on line, I like its ability to work with Google Scholar and other databases to download the data, and I like its ability to link back to Proquest or Ebsco or JStor without any trouble.

It sure beats the old way: look it up in Turabian or the Chicago manual and try to get each and every punctuation mark correct.


Adam Kotsko 05.29.07 at 8:50 pm

There are only so many variations that are possible w/r/t documentation style. The big question is footnote references vs. in-text references — as long as the text is on the right side of that divide, changing documentation style is a trivial task, by hand or otherwise. (At least for someone like me who is highly detail-oriented.)

Perhaps religion as a whole is non-prestigious, but even in the leading journals in the field, they specify that an article has to be changed to house style after acceptance — I don’t know of one that requires an article to be submitted in a particular style in order to even be considered.


Witt 05.29.07 at 9:01 pm

I would look to the model of how colleges or grantmaking foundations band together to agree on the Common Application. Seems like the incentives and disincentives would be similar.


Ben M 05.29.07 at 9:10 pm

These problems disappear if your field uses LaTeX. I have *no idea* what citation format my most recent paper used—the journal’s class file, which I downloaded from the journal’s web page, did all of the formatting grunt work. In fact, I never typed in most of my bibliography entries, since the online paper-archives let you cut-and-paste a citation with all of the LaTeX markup in place already.

LaTeX really is a huge time-saver, even with the learning curve for the markup language. If you don’t want to type raw text with markup, buy Scientific Workplace (a LaTeX front end with a WYSIWIG-like interface). It’s most useful, of course, if the journals accept LaTeX submissions and so on, so there’s a coordination problem. C’mon, humanities and social sciences! And, uh, biology, geology, and chemistry! Get on the physics/math/CS bandwagon!


kirk adler malone 05.29.07 at 9:21 pm

Two points. It is not laziness on the part of the journals, it is a desire for consistency within the journal of how citations are handled combined with a lack of discipline wide standard to adhere to. Second, dude, bibliographic software is something you should have discovered in graduate school. Very little sympathy for your plight since it is largely due to ignorance.


fardels bear 05.29.07 at 9:28 pm

To paraphrase Terry Pratchett: Bibliographies are to scholarship what compost is to roses.

That being said, I think most of these problems will disappear as the software becomes better. Like alison, I use RefWorks, and it makes life much easier than the old way of doing things with an actual reference manual beside the typewriter.


todd. 05.30.07 at 12:59 am

I had the over/under on the first explicit mention of LaTeX at comment 10.5, which I thought was high, but it looks like the over takes it. I suppose I wasn’t counting on Kieran to have a good joke instead of a plug.


Evan 05.30.07 at 1:02 am

The humanities and law use footnotes because specific archival references are not well handled in author-date style. This still doesn’t explain why the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History, or the Rev. Economics & Statistics and the Journal of Political Economy differ.


Kieran Healy 05.30.07 at 1:57 am

17: LaTeX only solves citation problems if the issue is already resolved in the discipline, and the discipline is happy to use LaTeX. When these conditions don’t hold, then you just spend a lot of time figuring how how to make LaTeX + BibTeX do what’s required.


sara 05.30.07 at 2:17 am

Obscure SF reference: twenty-sixth century CE star academic Dan Sylveste’s office:

. . .other areas of wall were covered in slowly updating texts: academic papers in preparation. His own beta-level simulation was doing most of the scut-work on the papers now: Sylveste had trained the siulation to the point where it could imitate his style more reliably than he could, given the current distractions. . .

which are the subject of the novel.


todd. 05.30.07 at 2:25 am

@19: Aha. That explains that. I assumed that you could find some journal/conference in math/cs/physics whose style matches the one you’re shooting for. God knows there’s enough variation there.


Kieran Healy 05.30.07 at 2:57 am

21: There are some quite powerful solutions, but the devil is in the details. The new holy grail in this department is Philipp Lehman’s Biblatex. When I was writing my book it was Jurabib.


Bill Gardner 05.30.07 at 4:04 am

“When these conditions don’t hold, then you just spend a lot of time figuring how how to make LaTeX + BibTeX do what’s required.”

Yeah, as in the primitive APA LaTeX styles. I’m not sure why more progress wasn’t made here.


nick s 05.30.07 at 4:36 am

I think most of these problems will disappear as the software becomes better.

There will be jam and friction-free bibliography management for the humanities tomorrow.

I think the issue may be resolved if journals take the leap and provide their bibliographies online in adaptable digital formats. But that still leaves the problem of in-text references or footnotes (see CT passim).

Semi-OT: any tips on migrating from jurabib to biblatex, Kieran?


Jo Wolff 05.30.07 at 6:40 am

In my few years as editor of the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society I inherited a practice where there was no house style: as long as each paper was internally consistent in its methods, we didn’t worry about consistency between papers. Even so, I probably spent the equivalent of a whole working week each year editing footnotes and bibliographies – mostly removing commas placed before brackets. On the whole US authors were very good, needing little correction, while UK authors were terrible, not having been taught in graduate school how to format their footnotes, and not taking the trouble actually to look at a published article to see how it should be done, no doubt imagining somehow that the journal would sort it all out. Perhaps things have changed now, but even with our relaxed policy correcting footnotes was a miserable way of spending my evenings.


magistra 05.30.07 at 7:13 am

Using reference software helps, but you still end up doing a lot of manual correction even after devising an output style. Partly it’s because reference software tends to be developed for science, which has relatively few types of material. My version of Endnote (admittedly an old one) has problems coping with the formating of modern editions of medieval texts, where you need an author and an editor field. But some humanities journals are also staggeringly unhelpful in their formats. Probably the worst are those which require volume numbers to be in Roman numerals: no ordinary piece of software is going to be able to cope with that.


William Sjostrom 05.30.07 at 8:41 am

As an economist, I am baffled by this discussion. I have shopped papers around without ever bothering to worry about reformatting the bibliography. No journal has ever showed any interest in the details of formatting until the paper is accepted. This has even been the case switching from journals that use reference lists to those that shove everything into those evil op cit footnotes.


bernard mcginley 05.30.07 at 9:19 am

What most irritates me bibliographically is the spurious accuracy of stating the place of publication of a modern book, as if one were (say) anatomising influences on Giordano Bruno: so (e.g.) (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007). But list a periodical called Meridian (for an article by D H Lawrence, c.1924) and there’s no hint about which continent to start looking in.



Ian Gadd 05.30.07 at 10:31 am

To respond to the question of ‘why?’, take a look at Robert J. Connors’s two articles (available from JSTOR):

‘The Rhetoric of Citation Systems, Part I: The Development of Annotation Structures from the Renaissance to 1900’, Rhetoric Review, 17 (1999), pp. 6-48


‘The Rhetoric of Citation Systems, Part II: Competing Epistemic Values in Citation’, Rhetoric Review, 17 (1999), pp. 219-245

The latter article includes a discussion of the recent move towards parenthetical citations:

Rhetorically, parenthetical citations, by their foregrounding of citation structure and placement of it within the body of the text, relegate issues of readability and prose style to tertiary importance. They represent a resolution to make scholarly prose a vehicle of purest instruction rather than of instruction and delight…The elective reading of footnotes is here replaced by the inescapable reading of parentheses, some of which may be long enough to seriously interrupt the stylistic flow of the prose and all of which force the reading process from content to reference issues willy-nilly…What seems to undergird the decisions of fields…to change over from note to parenthetical systems is an attitude toward cumulation of knowledge and supersession of outdated knowledge in a field…[Parenthetical systems] suggest an epistemological world in which new data are always accruing and cumulating, where mastery of previous work is the primary ethical duty of an author needs to be constantly proven.

Who says bibliographical style can’t be political?

As an aside, I worked for a while at the Oxford DNB which developed one of the most elegant and minimal citational system I have seen — as you’d expect from a work whose sheer size meant that including even the most simple of extraneous information could add pages to the finished volumes…


domwass 05.30.07 at 11:07 am

@21: I would wait until Philipp releases biblatex version 0.7, because after that until version 1 there will be merely bugfixes and no fundamental changes.
Having said that, I must admit that I already use it without problems. The approach is different to that of other BibTeX styles, but it’s quite straightforward, though you have to adjust you BibTeX data slightly—just have a look at the excellent documentation.


Thom Brooks 05.30.07 at 11:13 am

When I was asked what the house style should be for the Journal of Moral Philosophy, I simply sat down with the top philosophy journals and went for a style that agreed with most primarily to help standardize just this sort of thing.


kyangadac 05.30.07 at 11:19 am

16. Corey Thompson has my vote. His argument that many footnotes are superfluous and overwritten is appealing and pertinent and open access through the use of Data Object Identifiers means that much of the interoperability issues raised have already been solved.

As an undergraduate I’m still coping with my university’s particular version of Oxford citation style which has required some tweaking to Endnote’s version. Not to mention the ‘every paragraph should have at least one reference’ requirement. Yecch! (OK OK I’ll do it, anything to pass!)


Tom Fuller 05.30.07 at 1:34 pm

This is recommended by a friend of mine who is a Prof (Computer Science) at University College of London.


tom s. 05.30.07 at 1:43 pm

31 – A cynic could argue that the Journal of Moral Philosophy has more reason than most to act as a considerate member of the academic community.


tom hurka 05.30.07 at 5:03 pm

Seconding #27: I doubt that many journals care about citation style until the paper is accepted. (We certainly didn’t at The Canadian Journal of Philosophy when I was an editor.) So house style doesn’t usually reduce the flow of submissions.

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