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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Lost in citation

I’m getting ready to compose what might be the last literary analysis paper I ever write.

It’s strange to think about it. In college, I had to write several of them a semester. But now, seven years later, I’m woefully out of practice and the thought of revisiting a novel, meticulously gathering quotes, creating an outline, and banging out 20 double-spaced 12-point pages fills me with a mindless, creeping dread.

So naturally I’m practicing the fine art of avoidance and giving my full attention to a peripheral matter. Namely, how scholarship and the practice of literary exegesis may have to come to terms with ebooks in the not-too-distant future.

It was my experience that print books mattered to professors, and it seemed of utmost importance that all students have not just the same book but, in many cases, the same edition. If Dr. So-and-So couldn’t direct us all to turn to page 51 and have us arrive at the same paragraph in seamless synchronicity, we were going to have problems. This is why today I own both The Colossus and Other Poems and The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, and no less than three different tomes that all contain Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple.

The beautiful irony of this is that, thanks to digital publishing and the wonder of ereaders, a penniless student might not have to buy all those doorstops and could purchase just the salient chapters, stories, or poems instead. But having an ereader just complicates matters further in terms of citation.

When the text in your book can reflow and page numbers become meaningless, how will students cite their papers? Will the professor have to read an entire book just to be sure someone isn’t making something up? Will anyone even care?

A few guidelines have already emerged, but most of what I’ve seen only pertains to citing a book in a bibliography. When one is concerned with the kind of exacting in-text citation that was expected of my peers, the APA Style Blog’s suggestion is cringe-worthy:

In-Text Citations

For in-text citations of paraphrased material, provide the author and date, as for any APA Style reference. To cite a direct quotation, also provide page numbers if the e-book has page numbers. If there are no page numbers, you can include any of the following in the text to cite the quotation (see section 6.05 of the Publication Manual, pp. 171–172):

  • a paragraph number, if provided; alternatively, you can count paragraphs down from the beginning of the document;
  • an overarching heading plus a paragraph number within that section; or
  • an abbreviated heading (or the first few words of the heading) in quotation marks, in cases in which the heading is too unwieldy to cite in full.

College students? Absentminded professors? Count paragraphs? Have you met us?

Some Kindle ebooks do provide page numbers, but not all of them. If ebooks eventually become more accepted in the academic environment, it seems that some universal standard will have to be established.

In a day when we all might hand in our papers electronically, an alternative solution might be anchored links. Hypertext has long been a solution for proper attribution online; it’s probably not out of the question to think that we could provide a professor with a link directly to the passage in question. We’d just need really, really well-tagged XML. And I honestly think that anchors, location numbers, and other text indicators are going to be the way to go.

It is nice to know that the APA and other style-governing institutions are trying to anticipate these problems, but counting paragraphs from the beginning of a section, really? I can only hope that this is the beginning of a discussion and doesn’t become the standard practice.

2 comments on “Lost in citation

  1. Peter Meyer asked a similar question in his blog “A New Kind of Book.” His take was to start with the book itself though, not the reader, as he wondered if page numbers were truly relevant in the world of digital formats. I personally think that editors need to consider this question and should start numbering paragraphs instead of pages (to avoid making students and professors do it). Paragraphs breaks seem to be the only things that will stay the same from one digital reader to another. Even the number of lines could change. I’ll be curious to see if any one else has some ideas about how to solve this dilemma.

    • Claire Schulz
      April 14, 2012

      I like this idea, but wonder if the paragraph numbering could be done in a way that doesn’t interfere with the overall reading experience–if the number were to be hidden until the paragraph was highlighted, or something like that, it would be far less jarring than to have numbers appearing on the page alongside the text.

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This entry was posted on April 12, 2012 by in Technology and tagged , .

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