What bibliographies don’t need

It is kind of authors to provide details of the publisher, city of publication, and page numbers, for a publication, in the ‘references’ section of their paper. But we might ask, why? Stretch your imaginations a little, and it might occur to you that the answer to the question is “so that you, the reader, can find the referenced item, should you want to read it.”

How often do you use the city in which a publication was published, to find a copy of a reference? How often do you use the name of the publisher? How often do you use the page numbers of a journal article or book chapter to find one? My answers are ‘never’, ‘never’ and ‘never’. I suspect that your answers are too. How do you find the reference? Google it!

So, why, then, do authors put them in bibliographies? Because the people who are going to mark your essay, or edit or publish your book or paper, require you to.

Why do they require it? I think it must be because they have not noticed the internet.

Or if they have noticed it, and the radical difference it has made to how we find things, they have been too lazy to transfer that knowledge into their essay-marking or editorial policy. Each time I’m told by a journal editor that I need to provide an address or publisher or page numbers, a little steam comes out of my ears. Sometimes it is a demand that cannot be fulfilled: where the paper is published online, there is often no relevant city, and page numbers are a side effect of paper publication so irrelevant to non-paper ones. It is very often unclear who should count as the publisher. But even where these details can be found, it serves no purpose to provide them.

Before the internet had taken off, and stunning artefacts like Citeseer or Google Scholar existed, publication details and page numbers may have been needed in order that readers could find referenced items. But for the last ten years they have not been needed and any academic, publisher or university that has not taken account of the fact and changed its rules for bibliographies is just being stupid.

Published by

Adam Kilgarriff

I'm a scientist who has set up and runs a small company. I'm married (to Gill Lamden) with three children, Boris (22), Maddie (18) and Raffie (9) (as at today, 28 January 2015, in case I forget to update!) We live in Brighton, UK. Last November (2014) I found I had bowel cancer (stage 5; not curable; only 'manageable'). We've been adjusting to that since (and it is what provoked me to start the blog) My scientific area is linguistics, with my specialisms being corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, and lexicography - or, best of all, the intersection of all three. Since 2004, my company, Lexical Computing Ltd., has been providing a web service, the Sketch Engine, to linguists and lexicographers wanting to find out about words, using corpus-driven methods. Customers include Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Collins, Macmillan, Le Robert, Dictionary.com and around a hundred universities worldwide.

11 thoughts on “What bibliographies don’t need”

  1. I’m so with you on this, it drives me nuts every time I get asked for the page numbers (which in some cases are impossible to find anyway).

  2. I’m torn: as MSc Tutor and Supervisor of BSc, MSc and PhD projects, should I pass on this message, and furthermore remind my students that Adam is not only a much-published academic author but also has a Google Tech video on my recommended reading list? But correct citation is a required part of the BSc, MSc and PhD project curriculum and marking scheme, see http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/tsinfo/projects/NEW/report_MSc.shtml#ref, so students who follow this heresy risk losing marks from less liberal-minded Assessors. Maybe I should just agree in principle but keep it to myself …

  3. I totally agree with you, Adam.. we are surrounded by so many unnecessary and sterile chores in our academic life, just because someone thinks it is important to provide the page numbers, or the city for a publication. They’re simply not aware of the Internet, as you say.

  4. So true Adam. But then academics are usually the last ones to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat.

  5. Hear! hear!
    (I’d like to know how often librarians use publisher information. How do they cope with publishers being purchased by other publishers? Do they have special databases for that?)

    Anyway, providing a DOI or URL is more helpful.

    I use page numbers when I make an interlibrary loan request –for them to scan a book chapter for me. I sometimes glance at the page numbers to get a sense of the length of the paper or chapter. But then pages or word-count would make more sense (e.g., given ebooks).

    Wouldn’t it be nice if PDF readers could detect the reference and automatically provide meta-data to the reader? And also to allow the reader to present the bibliography with the style sheet of his/her choice? Why not allow the user to force the document to display references in APA if you want them that way rather than a numbered format? (Or reformat the entire paper with a style sheet of your choice. APA formatting is SO ARCHAIC. I would much rather have an engineering style: 1, 1.1., 1.1.1. …) And I could go on about the Kindle:
    But I digress…

  6. Just to play devil’s advocate here…

    I have to teach academic referencing to international students who may never have encountered it before. Rather than focus only on the face value of the references, I think you have to treat a correctly styled reference list partly as a semiotic move au second degré along the lines proposed by Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1957). This list signifies “I have acquired a measure of academic discipline and familiarity with the genre of academic writing. I am a member of the community”. Correct referencing can teach students such general academic virtues as consistency, attention to detail, and distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources. Heaven knows, some of them may even open a book, if only to find out the publisher’s details.

    Yes, there’s a great deal of redundancy in academic referencing. (Incidentally, a place of publication or page number is not necessary for online sources in most systems.) But think of it as a language, redundancy being a feature of many languages.


    Barthes, R. (1957). Mythologies. Paris: Éditions du Seuil

  7. Hi Adam,

    It is not just about essays, it is about bibliographies in articles, books, and evaluation systems.

    Basically having good librarian document management skills is not a bad thing. So teaching students to think about sources is good, especially as they may need to order an article or chapter through their library service, and then page numbers are necessary.

    Towns is an oddity. I just cite Benjamins as Amsterdam, and maybe I should add Philadelphia too.

    As for bibliometric databases and evaluation agencies, they want very compete entries, and woe betide your career if you don’t give them. At EvalHum (www.evalhum.eu) we are trying to knock some sense into the system.

    All the best


  8. The Williamses (John and Geoffrey, dear friends both) don’t seem to have noticed that life is finite and resources such as trained librarians are limited. They’ll find out!

    It’s not a matter of giving “correct” information; it is a matter of not giving pointless information. And declaring oneself to be (or learning to be) a member of a coterie of French academic snobs does not reduce the pointlessness.

    Is it really a good use of a skilled librarian’s time to hunt down information that, in all probability, no one will ever use? I have contributed several chapters to multi-authored handbooks and suchlike. I regularly refuse to give location and page numbers in bibliographical references. There is then a delay while the editor or the publisher protests that my streamlined bibliographical style is “incorrect”. Then, as often as not, there is a further delay while some unfortunate copy-editor is commissioned to add the missing “information” (as a gracious special concession to the stroppy old professor). Madness!

    In my time, I have edited multi-volume anthologies of previously published papers. In such anthologies, of course, the page numbers are quite different from the page numbers in the original published version.

    Adam is right: page numbers and locations are best omitted.

    But of course Geoffrey is also right: we need to change the whole culture and persuade bibliometric databases and evaluation agencies (etc.) not to require people to engage in pointless activities.

Comments are closed.