Friday, 11 April 2014

Citation, citation, citation! Is learning bibliographic styles a relevant skill for the modern student?

At ScHARR Library we run a program of online information skills training which includes coverage of the reference management tool Mendeley ( One of the many useful features of Mendeley is its ability to plug into Microsoft Word, allowing students to "cite while they write", meaning that their citations and reference list are generated for them automatically, without them having to type them in by hand. This is a feature that is also integrated into some other key reference management software products. I have heard some people argue that allowing students to automatically produce their citations and bibliographies is wrong, and that learning a specific referencing style is a vital skill for them to develop.

It's a moot point, but one that I'm inclined to dissagree with.  While I don't think for one second that students don't need far more help than they currently get in understanding the importance of citing and referencing source material consistently, appropriately and correctly, learning a particular referencing style is to my mind unnecessary, and irrelevant.

While we hope that many of our students will go on to be published in the academic literature, the vast majority of academic journals use their own anachronistic referencing styles which the students will simply have to learn again in order to reference their work appropriately for that particular journal.

The best analogy I can draw here is that of the spellcheck function which we now all take for granted in most wordprocessing software.  When marking an assignment, I have often seen teachers comment to a student that they have clearly not used the spellcheck function and should have done so before submitting their work. A generation or so ago we would have been advising them to do this the hard way and get out the dictionary, and some might still argue that for students who don't have English as a first language, using a dictionary to correct their spelling might be more helpful to their acquisition of the English language. However we generally now accept that it's fine for students to use spellcheck functionality, and indeed it is expected.

I think exactly the same case can be made for referencing and citing. I don't think students learn anything about the reasons for citing source material from learning by rote which section of the reference needs to be in italics and which in capitals or parentheses. In an academic environment where plagiarism is still a major source of concern I think that if we spent more time teaching them about why they need to cite and reference and less on how to "dot the i's and cross the t's", so to speak, we would be doing our students a huge favour.

Posted by Claire 

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