Remembering my excitement when MLA8 was announced (see MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook) and then when it was published (Back to basics – MLA8 revisited), I have to admit a degree of disappointment in the latest edition of the APA Publication Manual, APA7.
I am not a fan of MLA and its author style for in-text citation, I much prefer APA’s author-date approach. Knowing the date of publication of a source is an important detail in the kind of reading and academic writing that I generally do.
But I do like MLA8’s approach, the principles of documentation that it announces right at the start. There are just three principles and two of them resonate, they sum up my philosophy of and pedagogical approach to citation and referencing:
Principle 2 : There is often more than one correct way to document a source.
Principle 3 : Make your documentation useful to your readers (MLA8, p. 4).
Principle 2 removes much of the angst of getting that reference absolutely correct down to the capitalisation and comma and full-stop, while Principle 3 gives point and rationale to the process, it’s about helping the reader. Principle 1 does not resonate quite as much since it is surely shared by most referencing styles :
Principle 1 : Cite simple traits shared by most works (MLA8, p. 3).
the simple traits being author/s and titles – except that, re-reading these two pages just now, I noted that previous editions of MLA had advised that entries in the list of Works Cited be “based on the source’s publication format (e.g., book, film, magazine article, Web publication) … works in a new medium could not be documented until MLA created instructions for it.” I had not appreciated that enough, having become used to basing references for unlisted and unusual formats on the pattern used by a similar reference (and thinking that if nobody knows what is right, then nobody can say that this is wrong).
So, two of the three principles or maybe all three – a new way of thinking and I like it.
MLA8 goes on to provide a simple template, a pathway to the building of references which in time becomes second nature to the budding academic writer – and which apply, regardless of format. I still think my bull’s-eye/target model (illustrated in Back to basics – MLA8 revisited) may be even simpler than the MLA8 template, start from the centre (the actual source used) and work outwards but I do accept that the template offers more scaffolding to the learner writer.
It’s about helping the reader in various ways – including building your credibility as a writer while not overwhelming with unnecessary detail and having to follow strict sets of rules. Best of all, the MLA8 principles : they can be applied to almost any referencing style – they are, after all, principles, not rules. Indeed, MLA8 scores by reducing the rules so favoured by referencing style guides. Instead of trying to provide a rule and an example of every conceivable type of source material, MLA8 sticks to its principles. The MLA8 handbook is half the size of the MLA7 handbook.
But APA7? Granted, the basic structure of a reference remains, and this always was one of the attractions of the APA style of referencing:
Who — When — What — Where
it’s an-easy-to-remember template. The who is the author/s, creator/s, artist/s; the when is the date of publication; the what is the title of the source actually used; and the where is the source, the location details which pinpoint that actual source, the elements of the containers (per the MLA8 model) or the concentric circles (per my model), just work your way outwards.
But instead of being half the size of the previous edition, APA7 has grown by more than 60% (272 pages in APA6 is now 427 pages) and is more dense and with smaller typeface. There is more guidance, granted, but there are more rules, too. MLA8 is readable; APA7 is a chore.
Also granted, APA7 is intended for authors seeking to publish in the journals published by the American Psychological Association. It makes some concessions to students at university and school level but many of the chapters just do not apply to student writing. This is much more than a guide to citation and referencing only.
There are things to like about the new edition. For one thing, it standardises recording of DOIs (where previously there were three different styles in use, dependent on when the item was published). Many types of reference include the type of source (unpublished manuscript; interview; tweet; clip art; Facebook page and so on) which can be helpful. There is guidance on the use of URLs and databases (and when to include – or not – the names of databases). I like the advice to go to the source – reminding us especially that re-tweets and Pinterest posts are not original sources. And, although intended for professional authors, the advice on identifying and avoiding the use of predatory journals might be helpful for students looking for solid authoritative source material.
There is advice too on the use of the singular “they” and other bias-free language guidelines (which might or might not appeal). And much much more.
But there are things to dislike about the new edition too. Where APA6 allowed up to 6 authors in a reference before resorting to ellipses, APA7 allows up to 20 authors. Books no longer require the city of publication (which, for those of us in international schools working with materials which might be published anywhere in the world, is not altogether helpful).
Again not always helpful, in part because of the denseness of the text, is the spelling-out of instructions and explanations, often with copious see references (although many times the see reference adds little to the note). It is almost as if the compilers of APA7 have combed through the 6th edition APAstyle blog looking for commonly asked questions (and perhaps instances of less frequently asked questions too) and included instruction and examples in the update.
And indeed, some explanations really are helpful. The section on paraphrasing, for instance, has grown from three lines in APA6 (section 6.04) to more than a page in APA7 (sections 8.23 and 8.24), and includes advice on long paraphrases and the need to be clear that the paraphrase continues, it is still someone else’s work in use.
At the same time, while well intended, the instructions and explanations do not always make for easy reading.
And the number of reference examples has risen: where APA6 had examples of 77 different types of source (and 20 examples of referencing of legal documents), APA7 has 114 different types of source (and 29 examples of legal references).
I think that it’s the explosion of rules that most disappoints – certainly for writers and teachers at our level of academia. Granted many do like the assurance of a sample reference they can follow – but this does lend itself to the notion of a correct way to reference, with marks deducted for incorrectly formatted references – and the possibility that many teachers see incorrectly formatted references as akin to plagiarism (and this is real). It makes for angst, it makes for confusion and it masks the purpose of writing, it detracts from the purpose of writing, the message that the writer should be wanting to put across.
In a recent article, Tricia Bertram Gallant suggested much the same: we should Teach the Spirit, Not the Technicalities of Citations. She says that, as a student, her creativity was stifled by the perceived pressure to get her references formatted correctly. She blames it on “the rules,” the concentration on getting the references “right,” possibly because correctness is more easily assessed than content, which might be subjective. She notes, “One year we have to put two spaces after each period, the next, only one space” (and in this edition, APA7 comes out very firmly in favour of one space).
We should shift the emphasis from correct formatting of our references to consideration of the sources which have been cited in those references, it’s not how you reference but who(m) you reference. This is what academic research and writing is all about – choosing “the best” sources to provide evidence to support our arguments, going to the source rather than using a second- or third-hand report of what the original source said (or is understood or even alleged to have said). This is what academics is all about, the way that knowledge is built upon, the way contributions to the academic conversation are made. Yes, consistent and complete citations and references are helpful, “correct” formatting adds to our credibility as scholars (understanding the conventions of academic writing in the sphere in which we are writing), but it is what you say that is of the greatest importance.
If observance of rules is what seems to count above what is said in the text, then we have lost our way.
On the whole, I am disappointed by APA7. I still hold that MLA8’s principles remain the better guide and move scrutiny from formatting correctness to the writing – and I hold that those principles can be applied to most other citation and referencing styles. Push for consistency of references, help the reader, that remains my thrust, concentrate on the message, not on the technicalities of the way the message is delivered.
There is good news: the new edition spawns a new blog! The 6th edition APA style blog is now archived, the 7th edition APA style blog has a new home, a different URL. If you’re a user of this excellent supplement to the printed edition, do bookmark its new home.
And, still sitting on the fence, I think usage could assuage some of that disappointment, I could come to appreciate the manual more. It is, after all, a writing manual, not simply a guide to citing and referencing (as MLA has become). I need to spend more time with it, I need to use it more. I may come off that fence.
And a word of comfort: APA writers will not be expected to change to the new edition instantly. I would certainly recommend that schools do not move to the new edition until at least the end of the current school year and works in progress be completed using APA6. The important thing at our level is consistency of citations and references – certainly in systems which do not prescribe specific referencing style guides.[One mis-spelling corrected, 25 Oct 2019.]