Eli5: Why are reference styles so pedantic?


I understand the idea of giving people credit for their work, absolutely reasonable

But let’s say APA and Harvard have a different style for references is there any real advantage of one over the other and why are both so specific with formatting

In: 3

I think they’re specific so you can be concise. If we know it ALWAYS goes Author, Year, Title, Publisher. you don’t need to put ‘Author: Jones. Published 2010. Title: John Smith (2013). Published by Bloggs.’

Even in ambiguous cases Jones (2010), *‘John Smith (2013)’* Bloggs

is entirely clear as long as we stick to the standard.

It also helps in the modern era with searching and indexing large archives etc

Different disciplines use different styles for reasons specific to their fields.

[This page](https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/undergraduates/using-sources/principles-citing-sources/why-are-there-different-citation-styles) gives a pretty good basic rundown as to why each discipline uses the style it uses.

And really, once you make it a practice, the formatting stops feeling so arcane and becomes no different than any other rules of grammar.

Which is to say that, as long as you understand what components need to be in place and can arrange them in a way that’s intelligible to the audience that you’re presenting it to, nobody actually really cares that much if you break the rules a little.

It’s not just about giving people credit for their work – someone that knows what they’re doing will also look to your citations to evaluate the quality of your work and to examine how you constructed your argument, and may use those sources to build on or challenge your work.

So making sure that framework of references is intelligible to the reader and is presented in a way that gives them all the information they need for the discipline you’re working in is really important.

References aren’t just about giving people credit, they are also about helping your readers navigate the web of scholarship on the topic they are interested in. When someone is seriously researching the established literature, they may read an abstract, skip straight to the citations skim through the 50 or so citations, look up the most interesting 10, read those abstracts, skip to those citations, look up the interesting ones of those, and hopefully find a paper that is exactly on point for what they are looking for. Keep in mind that the same author may have published multiple papers (possibly in the same year); and there could be multiple papers with the same title; and when you are writing the paper you need to maintain your list of references. It makes everyone’s life way easier to just have a standard way of writing citations.

It would be better if everyone could agree on the same standard, but history got in our way, so now we have a couple.

In fields where tracking down references is less essential you see much looser standards around citation. For example, you almost never see APA or Harvard style references in newspapers. You’ll just see in the prose of the article a description of where it came from, hopefully with the name of the underlying article and its authors. Since an entire story in the news will have maybe 1 or 2 published sources, and most readers are not interested in reading the original source, there is far less reason to standardize on a citation format.

If you’re writing an academic paper, I should be able to read your citations and easily find exactly where you got the information. It’s as much about fact-checking as it is about credit. Does the paper you cite actually say what you say it says?

Page numbers can vary across editions, so the citation has to show which version of the book or paper you used. Again, so I can easily find the information.

Sometimes, translation is important. So if you’re citing, say, Ceasar’s Commentaries, there are multiple translations, each one slightly different.

So, the citation format is important so the reader can easily evaluate the source.