Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Reference formats: little method, lots of madness

Last night some sort of planetary transit event must have occurred, because for some reason a bunch of ecologists independently started questioning/venting on Twitter about the abundance of oh-so-slightly-different reference formats between journals.  I happen to love the subject of reference formatting (neeeerd!).  It's like those few times when someone says "Please tell me more about insect classification" - so exciting but so rare.

This post is on the subject of reference formats.  Why are there so many styles?  Are some better than others?  Should there be one style to rule them all?

The Canadian Field-Naturalist will be changing its reference format in the near future.  Our current format is incompatible with reference management software (e.g., EndNote, Mendeley) that more and more authors are using (with good reason - they're great).  So we'll be changing to a straightforward reference format and providing an EndNote style file on our site to benefit authors using EndNote.  I also intend on supplying a Mendeley style file some time, but that's a trickier taskExpect our new reference format in the next few months.

Each journal chooses its own formatting style.  There are a shocking number of tiny decisions that go into a format.  Should the volume number be bolded?  Should the year be enclosed in parentheses?  Should author names in the References section be displayed as:
  1. Wallace, A. R.
  2. Wallace, A.R.
  3. Wallace, A R
  4. Wallace, AR
  5. Wallace, Alfred Russel
  6. Wallace

Given so many choices, most journals' formats differ from each other in one or two small ways.


1) Space-saving formats (are really annoying)
Omitting article titles from references, using journal abbreviations, and using numbers instead of author names in citations all have the effect of reducing text and thus saving space and money for publishers.  However, the benefits of these space-saving approaches have diminished in recent years as journals are disseminated more online, where pages are free.

What do ecologists think about these types of formats?
Reducing information about a reference (e.g., omitting article titles, using journal abbreviations) is not only annoying but reduces the likelihood of finding the correct reference.  References frequently have errors (Aronsky et al., 2005).  If there is some redundancy in reference information in a journal format then a reader can still track down the article despite an error (e.g., the journal name was listed incorrectly but the authors and article title were correct).  Journal abbreviations are the spawn of Satan (Fitzsimmons, personal communication to himself 2013).  There is no authoritative list a poorly-known list (EDIT: thanks to Alex Bond @thelabandfield for notifying me of the list) of how journals should be abbreviated, so everyone does it differently, and abbreviation errors are extremely common (Aronsky et al., 2005).

We will include article titles and full journal names in our new reference format.  Because we're not jerks.  We also won't have our article titles in all-caps, like one of our peer journals, because that's rather shouty.

2) Readability
There has been some research on the effects of abstract and reference formats on readability.  When I say some research on the topic, I mean I know of only three studies.

  1. Hartley (1981) found readers generally preferred a certain order of elements in references (e.g., putting the date after authors' names).
  2. Hartley and Betts (2007) found readers generally preferred structured abstracts (i.e., abstracts split into multiple mini-paragraphs) over traditional abstracts.
  3. Scialfa et al. (1998) found some reference formats were not only preferred by readers but also used more efficiently by readers than other reference formats.

That's. About. It.  It seems that journals' formats are based not on experimentally demonstrated superiority of one style over another, but on the way the journal has done things for years (Wager & Middleton, 2002).  There are valid considerations for style that may vary between journals (Hartley, 2002), but frankly I don't think many editors give a damn (it's journal content that usually excites them, not formatting details, and appropriately so).

For decades researchers have lamented how silly it is to have scientists waste so much time on formatting idiosyncrasies. Below are a sample of such editorials/essays/articles, followed by the only counter-argument against universal reference styles I have yet found.

  • Friedberg, E. C. 2005. Call for a cull of pointlessly different reference styles. Nature 437:1232.
  • Garfield, E. 1974-1976. Uniformity of editorial policy on titles in citations will aid referees, librarians, and authors. Essays of an Information Scientist 2:229-230. (the author was a pioneer of scientometrics, and invented the impact factor)
  • Leslie, D. M. J. and M. J. Hamilton. 2007. A plea for a common citation format in scientific serials. Serials Review 33:1-3. (this article provides estimates of hours wasted by formatting)
  • Salvagno, G. L., G. Lippi, M. Montagnana, and G. C. Guidi. 2008. Standards of practice and uniformity in references style. Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine 46:437-438. (includes tables showing the format distinctions of 100 high-impact journals)
  • Stoldal, P. M. and D. B. Gordon. 1974. Uniformity of references. Science 186:1158-1159.

The only counter-argument I've found in praise of a diversity of reference formats is:
  • Donovan, S. K. 2006. Research journals: toward uniformity or retaining diversity? Journal of Scholarly Publishing 37:230-235.
Donovan argues that the diversity of journal formats should be appreciated, in contrast to a Big Brother boring world in which everything from reference formats to page sizes is consistent across journals. He also expresses concern about journals' independence if uniform reference formats are imposed upon them.  While I respect him for voicing a minority opinion, I personally feel the efficiency of a small number of reference formats would trump embracing diversity for diversity's sake.


Rather than a top-down decision by some authority, I think converting to a small number of reference styles could be accomplished easily, starting with the mega-publishers. The mega-publishing companies run a huge number of scientific journals (see Morris, 2007 for some already-dated analyses).  If one or a few of them decided to use a standard style, that would go a lot of the way toward universality.  Independent journals, such as The Canadian Field-Naturalist, could choose at our discretion to use whatever style the bigshots adopt.  As more journals pile on, the costs of not adopting the style would emerge as authors might avoid submitting to journals that require unique formatting.

Scientific journals are full of well-researched content, but the format of the journals themselves is often the product of arbitrary choices made years ago rather than critical assessment of costs and benefits.  We'll change to a simple reference format to aid authors (easy to write), readers (we'll include full titles of articles and journals), and machines (gotta prepare for our text-mining overlords).  If a universal style comes out that meets our minimal criteria, we will gladly switch to it.  And if such a standard style is developed, hopefully it goes better than this XKCD comic (tweeted to me by librarian @dupuisj):


REFERENCES CITED (in whatever format I please):
Aronsky, D., J. Ransom, and K. Robinson. 2005. Accuracy of references in five biomedical informatics journals. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association 12:225-228.

Hartley, J. 1981. Sequencing the elements in references. Applied Ergonomics 12:7-12.

Hartley, J. 2002. On choosing typographic settings for reference lists. Social Studies of Science 32:917-932.

Hartley, J. and L. Betts. 2007. The effects of spacing and titles on judgments of the effectiveness of structured abstracts. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 58:2335-2340.

Morris, S. 2007. Mapping the journal publishing landscape: how much do we know? Learned Publishing 20:299-310.

Scialfa, C. T., J. K. Caird, K. Connolly, and C. Cosmescu. 1998. Effects of APA reference format on search performance and preference. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 4:44-54.

Wager, E. and P. Middleton. 2002. Effects of technical editing in biomedical journals. Journal of the American Medical Association 287:2821-2824.


  1. I haven't seen any mention of DOIs. Outside the confines of print paper, the reference format is rendered largely inconsequential for modern literature. There really should be no reason for authors to submit anything BUT a DOI in a lit. cited section of a submission then leave it up to the Editorial team to auto-churn these into whatever format the journal desires. At the very least, the reference format in the final product should also include resolver + DOI for each reference (eg http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/asi.20718 for one of your cited papers above). It is unacceptable in this day and age not to have these both for the authors being cited (click-through metrics are tallied) and for readers. In their absence, readers have to use various hacks to find articles being cited (eg. Google Chrome extensions like http://bit.ly/RgZQiA)

    1. Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) are certainly useful, and I'd expect any "universal" reference format to include them. But I would not want the DOI to come at the expense of other elements of the reference, even if those DOIs would be resolved to include full references + DOIs upon publication. Referees need to see full references, not just DOIs. A quick glimpse at a reference will give a referee lots of info without having to follow a DOI link to the referenced article. Also, authors will make mistakes in the DOIs they include in references. If there is nothing but a DOI then there is no alternative way for the referee, editor, or publisher to find out the reference without going back to the author. I'd rather have the redundancy of a reference + DOI for easy visualization of the reference for readers (the reference) and linkage for the reasons you provide (the DOI).

      We are guilty of being too late into the game of DOIs. We will sign up - it's on our lengthy "to do" list.

      Also keep in mind that people are slow to embrace major change in conventions. A Science News piece from 2002 described a geophysics journal that changed its reference format to include DOIs at the expense of page numbers, but reverted to its normal format in response to frustration and confusion by authors.

      Renner, R. 2002. Online pioneer winds up lost in cyberspace. Science 297:1468-1469.

  2. Full agreement - a ref + DOI in literature cited is the way to go. Here's hoping you get your DOIs soon and can retroactively apply them to back-issues.