Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It's Time To Get Rid of Formatting Guidelines for Academic Journals

This morning, I was reading an engaging and superbly well-written book that I've been asked to review for philoSOPHIA and found myself, in spite of its merits, grumbling aloud about the very experience of reading it.  Why? One word:


I truly hate the maddening inconvenience of endnotes. All those unnecessary interruptions, all that flipping back and forth... who ever thought this was a good way to arrange a text? Endnotes are like the brussel sprouts of formatting. I'm sure there are people out there who like them, but those people are in the minority, and the reasons for their affection are as mysterious to me as endnotes are irritating.

There are plenty of things to complain about in academic writing-- obscurantism, clunky prose, solipsistic indulgence, the internment of otherwise meaningful insights in maximum-security jargon camps--  but none of them, to my mind, are as exasperating as our continued fealty to outdated, impractical and obstructionist formatting guidelines. The differences between citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, IEEE) are at once massive and insignificant.  Given that they all aim at accomplishing the same basic function, i.e., providing a map for the reader to travel from reference to source, one would think that allegiance to any particular citation route is a waste of time. The point is-- should be-- that the reader can get where she needs to go, no more, no less. Many paths to the same summit and all that.

And yet, how many lifetimes of thought and productivity have been lost reformatting perfectly fine papers in order to accommodate the idiosyncratic requirements of an academic journal?  I say, let's get rid of formatting guidelines altogether.

Learning the ins and outs of different citation styles is a useful practice for high school students (unfortunately and increasingly, for college students, too) but, lest we forget, the point of that disciplinary practice is not, primarily, to train students in the Technocratic Arts. The point is to teach them how research is done, which includes first and foremost recognizing and properly acknowledging the wealth of source material that every thinker/writer inherits, and secondarily how to follow the trail of another's inheritance to access those same sources.

Professional academics, hopefully, have already learned as much by the time they start adulting qua professional academics.  So, if you've written a paper that effectively cites sources-- by which I mean, any reader familiar with a library or the Internet can get from your text to your source-- there is simply no cause to requires that you go back and rearrange that basic information.  Especially in the humanities, those changes often amount to little more than shuffling the order of items and capitalizing differently.  And it takes a ridiculous amount of time to do so, for no good reason whatsoever.

You don't drive with your hands at 10 and 2 anymore.  You don't call your mom to tell her you got home safe every night. You don't pull out your calculator to figure out how to tip. (I hope.) And, if you've earned a PhD in the humanities, you ought not have to do a song and dance to prove that you know how to cite sources.

Let's just quit with this nonsense, already.

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