Streamlining Citations

New MLA Handbook seeks to make citing sources from a variety of media easier and more commonsensical.

March 31, 2016

In fairness to the Modern Language Association and other makers of popular academic style guides, citing sources -- if always tedious -- was once relatively straightforward: journal articles like this, books like that. But the proliferation of media sources -- especially electronic ones -- in recent years has made writing citations confusing at best (and purgatorial at worst).

So this week’s release of the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook will be welcome news to any humanist who’s ever tried to cite a YouTube video. The book, which will soon be accompanied by a digital style center that answers questions and offers sample papers and teaching resources, seeks to streamline citations by taking more of a logic-based approach, rather than rules based. That mean less feverish page flipping to locate a style and more critical thinking about scholarly attribution.

“Rather than beginning with a source’s publication format -- book, article, website, television show -- and then explaining the rules for that particular format, we now focus on the elements that are common to nearly all sources, explaining how to find those elements and put them together into a works-cited entry,” said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate executive director and director of scholarly communication for the MLA, who oversaw the changes.

The new handbook “really focuses on principles -- not just on how to create a citation that is correct, but on the purposes of citation practice, as well as on strategies for evaluating sources,” she added.

MLA’s new, slimmer guide also includes some specific changes to style, in support of the bigger aim. It has eliminated the use of many abbreviations and city of publication for books, and dropped the medium of publication in most cases. It regularizes punctuation and encourages the inclusion of full web addresses (URLs). There’s also a new “container” concept, which Fitzpatrick described as reflecting the “mobility of sources today.” If an article is contained in a journal but downloaded from JSTOR, for example, the citation should reflect both facts.

Here’s a comparative book citation, using rules from the seventh and eighth editions of the MLA Handbook. The differences are subtle, but most citations -- regardless of medium or source -- would now be much more similar to the second than the first.

Seventh edition: Copeland, Edward. “Money.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 131-48. Print.

Eighth Edition: Copeland, Edward. “Money.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Copeland and Juliet McMaster, Cambridge UP, 1997, pp. 131-48.

Fitzpatrick recently wrote about the significance of scholarly citations and MLA’s new approach in the L.A. Review of Books, saying writers “need to know how to cite an ebook, how to cite a tweet, how to cite an Instagram image, how to cite -- no, seriously, my office actually received this inquiry -- a book that a player reads within the action of a video game.” But at some point, she continued, “the process of developing and disseminating all of these citation formats runs the risk of creating a map that is larger and more complex than the terrain through which it attempts to guide writers and readers. And this is the point at which academic writers understandably begin to grumble about citations being outdated and unnecessary anyhow.”

Disagreeing with some assertions that citations are obsolete in the Google age, Fitzpatrick wrote that citations are needed to connect disparate works and that she was “convinced that it is possible to get rid of the murky bathwater without disposing of the baby. Citation practices can instead be future-proofed, both so that the markers authors leave behind today continue to point in the proper directions tomorrow and so that style manuals needn’t grow endlessly complex.”

Michael Greer, a lecturer in rhetoric and writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a content developer for higher education publishers, is an early fan of the handbook (which he previewed for MLA to assess its impact on teachers and publishers). He called it “streamlined and flexible,” and, notably, half the length of the previous handbook.

Greer said there’s no one right way to cite a single source and that students are “encouraged to think critically about sources instead of going on a scavenger hunt for the one example citation that matches what they are working on.” Now students are encouraged to look for a key elements -- author, title and container -- and “build” a citation around them.

From an instructor’s perspective, he said, the new handbook is more teachable, and includes a template that students can use for citing any source. “The new style is better aligned with instructors' focus on process and critical thinking when teaching students the basics of writing with sources,” he added.

Greer said the handbook amounted to a “big change.” He guessed that “not everyone will love it at first,” but that it “will come as a breath of fresh air to most writing teachers.”


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