Blog Post

Adapting Print Citation Styles for Digital Projects: Purpose

The question of how academic web projects should cite and be cited has yet to be adequately addressed. The main problem is that web technologies change faster than citation authorities like The MLA Handbook, The APA Publication Manual, and The Chicago Manual of Style can print new editions. And since these authorities are responsible primarily for dealing with the ever-changing editorial conventions of the print industry, their resources are spread too thinly to deal with the full scope of questions related to web citation. This blog series calls for a new authoritative body to govern issues of web citation in the way that the MLA, the APA, and the Chicago manuals maintain editorial standards of print citation. The resulting manual should be collaborative, open-source, and subject to change, following the model of the Text Encoding Initiative, the consortium that maintains encoding standards for digital texts.

Print-focussed style manuals have been forced in recent years to integrate Internet citation into their existing systems, but these integrations have had mixed results. For example, the MLA's addition of a medium designation at the end of each entry in the works cited list has helped to distinguish between print and web resources. But the "web" designation does little to distinguish between the various types of web sources. In some instances, it may be crucial to communicate whether a cited work is availble as an open source or only by subscription. Digital scholars need to collaborate to adapt existing print citation standards in a way that makes sense for web projects.

Furthermore, digital technologies offer new possibilities for citing information more effectively than existing print standards allow. With options to hyperlink, store information in bibliographic databases, and import information with javascript, web projects can break new ground when it comes to connecting pieces of information. These technologies have been employed effectively by some websites, but have not yet been standardized. In order to maintain a standard of quality for digital scholarship, scholars need to establish citation standards that will accomodate new and future technologies.

I began confronting issues of web citation as a research assistant and text encoder for The Map of Early Modern London, or MoEML, as we have begun to call it. The project layers historical data on the Agas map of London (1570–1605?), and will soon link references to historical locations mentioned by John Stow in his Survey of London (1598). The website also features an encyclopedia of born-digital articles describing the people, places, and organizations of early modern London. These entries refer frequently to digital resources like British History Online (BHO), the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), and Early English Books Online (EEBO), but developing consistent ways of pointing our readers to information on these sites has been a challenge.

In the following series of blog posts, I will share some of MoEML's citation problems and discuss my proposed solutions. I invite responses from web publishers confronting similar challenges, and hope that together we can draft some practical solutions that may become the basis for a collaborative web citation manual.



Another issue I see is that students who grew up searchign for information online don't understand the basic purposeof scholarly citation practices. You can just look it up online! Or you can simply link to a URL. Traditional bibliographic practices based on print materials and formats does not make sense to them. Arcane citation formatting issues seem irrelevant. Not to mention the entire issue of copy/paste vs. plagiarize is also unclear and somewhat irrelevant to them. I see those as a bigger challenges in teaching atudents how and why to cite.


It can be tricky for students to see the importance of documentating their sources when information can be so easily accessed through collaborative projects like Wikipedia. It's important to remind them that checking the citations on such projects is important. Even when citations are provided, they aren't always links to the most reliable sources.

You raise an important issue and I hope that my upcoming posts will be helpful for you. I do, however, plan to focus more on issues of how scholarly websites should be citing each other rather than how students should cite scholarly projects. That said, it's important for web projects to provide information about citation. The MoEML project currently has an in-progress "how-to" page with instructions on how to cite the website. So does the Internet Shakespeare Editions (ISE), another UVic project I have recently joined.


Cameron, so glad to see you addressing this topic. I can't say that questions of online citation have been an issue in my scholarly work, but they are definitely an issue in the work I do as a wine writer for an online wine magazine. Unlike many of my colleagues, my wine writing tends to be pretty citation-heavy -- I write about wine science and often reference scientific research articles. I've essentially been making up my own system as I go along because the magazine doesn't yet have an established set of guidelines. I've tried simple hyperlinks -- not always tidy in complex sentences -- hyperlinked superscript numbers resembling footnote notation -- elegant, but not necessarily obvious to the reader -- and listed references at the end of the article -- traditional and easy to understand, but significantly less helpful to the reader in my opinion. 

I'm looking forward to reading more about the issues you've encountered and solutions you've explored, and to thinking more about how citing sources on the internet might contribute to breaking down (or at least complicating) the boundary between academic and non-academic writing. 


Hi Cameron,

As someone who spends most of her time producing digital scholarship and citing non-traditional resources like prezis, blogs, twitter, etc., I'm excited to learn more from you about how scholars can begin to tackle this issue. As the previous commenter mentions, (who also happens to be my colleague and friend!) we need to begin to explore "the boundary between academic and non-academic writing."  Figuring out how to cite digital resources is a good place to start. 


This is a very interesting and timely topic, and I'm glad to see you raising it. Online citation practices are so challenging for students today, and the state of bibliograhpic software jsut makes things more confusing. I'm very interested in reading your thoughts about this area.


Thanks Erika, Lori, and Chris,

Erika, I hadn't previously thought about this problem as a question of complicating/breaking down the distinction between academic and non-academic writing. Maybe you could elaborate?

For me it has been a matter of adapting existing editorial standards in ways that allow logical/quick connections to be made within those systems. For instance, following MLA standards, our project cites in parentheses. But we also add a hyperlink in that parenthetical citation that opens a popup with content generated from our bibliographic database (BIBL). Readers thus have the ability to link directly to the source information without leaving the page, or even consulting the works cited section at the end, as they would have to do in a print journal or book. We do still use a conventional works cited list though: creating the above link automatically generates an entry in that list. That way, MLA standards are more or less satisfied, but we still give our readers the reserach advantages they should expect on the web. Check out this page as an example. Click on a few citations and see how it works.

That said, I certainly see a conflict between the free and easy possibilities of making connections on the Internet and (my) rigid obsession for editorial consistency. You're right to note that hyperlinking can sometimes be messy and inconsistent (and I would add it's never clear where you're going to be sent in a hyperlink—should we expect a popup? a new tab? are we going to be taken away from the page we've been so busily reading?). I haven't worked with footnote citation yet, but it does have the potential to be tidier, if less obvious to the reader. I wonder whether Chicago style citation might be more Internet-friendly...

As for citing less conventional sources, Lori, I've had less experience in that area. Our project has been spared that complication by the fact that most early modern Londoners didn't have Twitter accounts :-) Still, I think it is an important issue to address here, and I'm interested in seeing some specific instances where citing a tweet causes problems. That could be a real brain tickler.

And Chris, bibliographic software. Sigh. When I started my work with MoEML I was optimistic about setting up something that would standardize our BIBL entries, eliminating inconsistencies. Our head programmer has experimented with these things before and told me it can't be done: it always causes problems, as you point out. However, I haven't lost hope. I think that simple if/then logic systems have the potential to create consistent citation entries. MLA itself has a very logical system (that we could improve for our needs), and I'm sure with a lot of fine-tuning, we could end up creating some sort of flawless flow chart. Starting with a simple formula like "if the work has an author, cite that first alphabetically by surname." Of course, it gets more complicated, and we'd need new rules to account for that: "if a work has a medium designation of film, the title precedes the author (i.e. director)'s name, which needs the prefix 'Dir.'" I'm basically envisioning a complex version of this.

If this isn't quite making sense yet, I think it will as the weeks go by. I'm looking forward to bouncing around some ideas and thinking about how my struggles with citation will apply to your projects and experiences.


Cameron, I'm glad that you asked me to follow up on my earlier comment about the boundary between academic and non-academic writing and citation on-line. I've thought quite a bit about this, but haven't really articulated my thoughts very specifically. 

As I mentioned before, I feel that the writing I do in my life outside the academy walks a line somewhere between scholarly and non-scholarly work. I rely on scholarly sources and hold myself to the same standards of accuracy and precision to which I hold myself in academic work, but I'm writing for a popular audience and the formality of my voice shows that. 

When I think about trying to define academic vs. non-academic or scholarly vs. non-scholarly work in traditional formats, I tend to think about location/medium -- is this an article in the New Yorker or an article in College English? -- tone, and citations. The first is breaking down as scholars publish on blogs and wikis and via other forms of web publication that don't fit tidily into established categories. The second is breaking down in some ways, if perhaps very slowly, though I've certainly seen an increasing amount of informality creeping in to academic work (and I welcome it.) The third can, I think, can be a clue to reliability and degree of "scholarly-ness" online. When I talk about finding reputable sources on-line with my first-year comp students, I tell them that whether sources are cited and what those sources are is a big part of judging the worthwhileness of a website. I wonder whether codifying systems of online citation will help online work that treads that academic/non-academic boundary earn more respect from the traditional academy. 

The wild card I've not mentioned in this discussion is, of course, peer review, directly tied to place of publication. The wine writing community to which I belong is just now beginning to think about instituting systems of peer review. I'm looking forward to seeing where this idea goes. 


You're very right to point out that tone shifts alongside citation methods from medium to medium, and that as scholars publish digital work on blogs, et cetera, this tone is becoming increasingly informal (as I now notice is evident in my first post, which is embarrassingly informal). I agree that this is a good thing, but we have to be careful that the information we present continues to be reliable, and that a system is in place to make that process as easy (and as consistent) as possible. You and Chris both note the importance of teaching this skill to students, but what interests me most is related to what you point out right afterward:

"I wonder whether codifying systems of online citation will help online work that treads that academic/non-academic boundary earn more respect from traditional academy."

I think it should, and I think that it will. But some serious thought needs to go into how we should adapt established codes (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) into a digital-friendly format. My goal is to develop such a system at MoEML.

You also point out that peer-reviewing is an important part of maintaining the reliability of a source. I should really write a post specifically for this issue because peer-reviewing is not always practical for web projects. For example, MoEML has developed a review process that ensures the reliability of the site's content, but does not do so in a traditional blind peer review, as a print journal would. The questions that need to be asked here are: how important is a peer review process for a digital project and can a different review process adequately ensure the reliability of information? At MoEML, the review process is more or less akin to an encyclopedia-type thing, where the editors ensure that solicited contributions meet our scholarly expectations. We should chat more about this as I add more posts (which I plan to do soon). This part of the equation is really important and I'm glad you brought it up.


I'm pretty sure I've infringed on blogging etiquette by making such substantial changes to the above post, so I'm leaving a note here to apologize and explain my changes.

After discussing the initial post over the course of several months with Erika, Lori, and Chris (thanks for the thought-provoking discussion, guys), I felt it necessary to provide a more focussed launching point for upcoming posts. So I added several sentences that explain my purpose in more detail.

So. Does anyone have any additional thoughts based on the new version of the post?