The (F)Utility of References

On a rope bridge, how solid are the sides? How constrained is the hiker? How important is the connection? Why use a rope bridge anyway?

Bibliographies annoy me. I say this while compiling one for Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, which curates a variety of articles from Hybrid Pedagogy. This collection will guide readers through conceptualizing, theorizing, questioning, and applying critical pedagogy into their practice, whether they’re faculty, librarians, adjuncts, or outside academia. The collection uses thematic organization, combining articles in fresh and helpful ways. The book contains 34 articles that together include references to 220 separate outside sources.

When the authors first wrote their articles, they did so with online publication in mind. Many authors saturated their work with links to outside sources that expand, clarify, define, or reiterate concepts they discuss. It’s rather like “adding color” in journalism, but here it traditionally appears in the form of blue, underlined text. Folks follow the links to add the color if they’re curious or stick with the main thread otherwise. The link takes readers directly to the added information without any need to “look up” a source. For Hybrid Pedagogy, that approach sets the standard — and the extent, really — of citation practices. The journal has, to the best of my knowledge, never published a bibliography at the end of an article. Because the journal exists exclusively as online content, links form a natural reference system, extending articles and tracing influence.

But Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection will be available in print, as well as in digital, self-contained e-book and PDF formats. In a digital book, we can preserve the hyperlinks. But in print, we cannot. Our normal citation practices fail. No underlines, no links, no URLs. In print, as we know, following up on sources requires two steps: First, readers flip from where they’re reading to where the references are listed, keeping in mind the source’s author’s name. Then, once the reference has been located, the reader must go find the named source. That means we had to build a new documentation layer on top of the existing articles — a bibliography at the end of the book and sufficient contextual information in articles to cross-reference each source.

“The way we’ve always done it”

For just a moment, let’s pretend it’s 1985 or something, when clicking hyperlinks wasn’t something people did. Instead, we search through a physical library with printed materials. We need the bibliography entry in its entirety to help us locate the document that was mentioned in the text we’re reading. The reference entry needs to be precise and formatted consistently for us to know what kind of source we’re working with and how to find the information.

The tedium required to construct the perfect specimen, finessing the finest details with precision and ensuring fidelity to the standard decreed in this year’s Style Guide satisfies only the sadists who assign such tasks. I refuse to believe anyone enjoys crafting reference lists. The kicker? Most of entries these days end with URLs. So we use a system designed for print in order to write out a URL that we assume will be re-typed by later readers to visit the same site we used? First, why create the entry if the URL can do the work for both the author and the reader all at once? Second, why print a URL with something like “97a2c816-57ca-11e1-ae89-00144feabdc0” in it (actual URL segment from an article in the Financial Times) when a simple web search of the article title would likely point to the same document more quickly? Each time I created an entry for a born-digital source, I wanted to save myself (and future readers) time by writing simply, “For links to sources, please use the digital versions of this text.”

How reference lists go wrong

One scenario I recently encountered illustrates the mundanity and absurdity of reference-list formatting. For the first time, I encountered an author who was the third generation in his family to hold his name. I wanted to ensure what I thought made sense for the punctuation and placement of the suffix adhered to style guidelines. (Spoiler alert: It did not. I would have omitted a comma. The horrors!) My trusty companion for settling such disputes, the Purdue Online Writing Lab, said nothing about suffixes on its page dedicated to author names in reference lists using APA 6th edition.

Let me say that again. A writing center found it necessary to create a whole reference page dedicated entirely to the presentation of author names in a reference list using a specific edition of a specific style guide. The fact that this material cannot be presented in more generalized terms suggests to me that it should only be of interest to specialists. Yet many course curricula subject freshmen to these strictures every semester, and many instructors berate those students for not following or internalizing such mundanity. But I digress.

The “solution” (question mark?)

I was looking for how to present an author’s name if they’re the third to hold it. Right. I found the answer on a post on the APA Style Guide Blog (the existence of which I hope sounds absurd to anyone outside academic publishing). A blog post about suffixes in APA style did indeed answer my question, and I included the appropriate comma as a result. Thank goodness, else what devastation would my omission have wrought?

But this footnote appears at the bottom of that post:

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can find the keys to this post throughout the Publication Manual. The fourth bullet on page 184 explains how to punctuate suffixes within a reference, and page 204 has an example with “Jr.” (Example 24). The guideline for alphabetizing appears in the second bullet at the top of page 182.

Timothy McAdoo, APA Style Blog

The answer to my question had to be inferred by the combination of minutiae from three separate pages in the Style Guide. All to glean how best to add “III” to a line of text that nobody’s going to read, tucked away at the end of a book. Why do we do this to ourselves?

And one more thing…

Besides, printing a URL on paper guarantees the paper will be obsolete and useless in the future. URLs change. Sites shut down. Heck, the URL for the blog you’re reading now has changed three times in the past decade. The same goes for the articles we included in the collection. With digital content, it’s trivial to update those links as things change. Not so with paper.

“But!,” you say, “What about DOIs‽” What indeed. While I understand the benefit of linking to a DOI, why would I print 10.17763/haer.59.3.058342114k266250 (actual DOI of article in Harvard Educational Review) in a book? Again, the time it takes to transcribe that string of numbers is longer than the time it takes to go to your favorite search engine and type in the article’s title. Oh, and adding insult to injury, the URL to the HER article above changed twice since the article referring to it was published. I had to use the Internet Archive and follow two different 302 redirects to find the current URL, all because the reference’s title wasn’t mentioned in the article, preventing me from simply searching for the lost article.

Let’s try this another way

We — academics, authors, and the organizations that create style guides — need to change our policies surrounding URLs. A URL should not appear in print texts; that defeats the point. We also should change our approach to online citation. DOIs are a good start. Linking to pages in the Internet Archive solves other problems, as well. But we all know these structures won’t last forever. Heck, I doubt they’ll last my lifetime.

The majority of the work I do exists — and is accessed — online. In online spaces, we make no reference lists. We don’t wait until the end to reveal the giants on whose shoulders we stand. No, we point directly to them on first mention. And maybe again on fifth mention if we think your memory may be going. In online spaces, we embrace the power and simplicity of the hyperlink. Everything online is but a single click away from anything else online. Unless something’s paywalled, but we don’t like those people anyway, right?

So why has this convenience and simplicity not “trickled down” (as they say) to print media? Can the technology of a hyperlink be backward compatible with the technology of the printing press? How can a hyperlink fail gracefully, as Don Norman would demand?

One option we have

The trick hinges on good hyperlink etiquette. When we click a link, we expect the name of that link to also be the name of the thing we see when we click it. If I mention Disney World, a map of Disney World, or a video about Disney World, you expect those three links to go to different places based on the linked text. If we were to print this paragraph without hyperlinks, that sentence with those examples would still make sense because the content is all still in place. Compare this to the infuriating common practice of the late 90s: “For more information, click here.” That text says nothing about what’s at the other end of the link, so I have no idea what to expect. And if we print that sentence without the link, it’s less than meaningless—it’s infuriating because it emphasizes our lack of information and the inappropriateness of the medium. We’ve come a long way toward helping readers in the past few decades.

By using descriptive link text and incorporating author names or text titles (or preferably both) into a sentence, we can use a hyperlink to simplify referencing and still provide enough information for a quick web search for a source if someone happens to be reading a print copy. For example: I really like a lot of what Sean Michael Morris says in his keynote, “Not Enough Voices.” He makes me think about the times and situations in which I need to put down whatever microphone I have or whatever podium I’m behind. Listening to students is a favorite topic of mine, so he definitely got my attention and got me thinking.

Why this approach works

In the preceding paragraph, the important link provides enough information that print readers can find what they want — either the video recording or the article on Hybrid Pedagogy pretty easily. It lets digital readers click once to access the same. And the other link adds color to the text. Simple and effective, and I don’t need a reference list. If someone really wants to look up my sources, it’s far easier to search the web for my name and the title of this article and use the links found within than it is to use a reference list and track down each source from there.

Next time I help with an edited collection that will be both print and digital, I will volunteer to compile the bibliography. And I will write this line:

For information on all references used within this text, consult the digital version, which contains convenient hyperlinks to all referenced material.

Because 220 entries is a lot, and I doubt they’ll ever be used.