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The general rules are clear: “if it’s not yours, you cite it” and “if you’re not sure whether or not to cite it, cite it.”

Most, but not all, documentation style guides include the rule, “if you cite it in the text, then you must reference it (usually at the end of the article, paper, chapter, book), and if you have a reference (at the end), then you need a citation in the text.” Put simply:

citation <> reference <> citation

There are exceptions to every rule, and documentation is no exception. Exceptions galore!

Exceptions can confuse.  Putting aside the notion that some style guides refer to references in the text and require full citations at the end, and that some use the terms interchangeably (further adding to possible confusion), exceptions still abound.

First, we must accept that the demands of formal documentation apply mainly to academic work.  We can still be honest when using other people’s words, work and ideas in non-academic work, such as a short (or long) story, or a film or video, or a newspaper article, or a prezi slide, or a blog-post. We can still say that a particular sequence is not our own, and we can still show where we got it from. Even journalists quoting unnamed sources admit that it’s not their words, they got that quote from an unnamed source, a spokesman or company representative.

Then there is common knowledge, more exceptions. Common knowledge is a fraught concept.  A term, fact, statistic, piece of information may be common knowledge in one subject and not in another; it may be common knowledge in some groups or sub-cultures but not in others. Something commonly known to people living in Devon or to fans of Justin Bieber may not be commonly known by a Scot or by an Alice Cooper fan.  So often, it’s a matter of audience. General advice: if you’re not sure of your audience, cite it. General rule: if in doubt, cite it.

And then there are the style guides. They all seem to include exceptions.

The Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition (APA6) does not, for instance, require inclusion in the list of References for classical works or for major religious texts (Section 6.18), nor for personal unpublished communications (6.20), though (in the case of the published works) enough information is required in the text to allow for identification and location, chapter and verse.

Turabian’s A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago style for students and researchers, 8th edition (Turabian 8) has a long list of exceptions to the citation <> reference <> citation rule. What is more, the exceptions are slightly different, depending whether you are using the numbered-footnote or the author-date system. While the numbered footnote should include all necessary information regarding the source, those using this system may omit from the Bibliography such sources as newspaper articles, early (and some later) classical and English literary works, the Bible, encyclopedias and other reference works, brief published items including abstracts and reviews, unpublished communications, some legal and constitutiuonal documents, and more (16.2.3).

If you are using the author-date system, you should be aware that the list of sources which may be omitted is slightly shorter; if you are using this system then you must include references for newspaper articles, and for brief published items including abstracts and reviews, you cannot omit them (18.2.2).

Unusually, Chicago/Turabian allows exceptions to the citation <> reference <> citation rule – in both of its styles you may list in your Bibliography / References sources which you have used, even if you have not cited them in the text.

The MLA handbook for writers of research papers, 7th edition (MLA7) requires a full source reference under a table, map, photograph or other illustration or non-text representation, and no reference is required in the list of Works Cited at the end of the paper. (Exception to the exception: if you actually cite the source in the text, as against directing your reader to Table 3 or Figure 2, then you should now include a reference at the end.)

Many style guides also allow local exceptions. MLA7 does not require URLs, but if a teacher or a school requires URLs, then URLs may be used. The International Baccalaureate requires URLs.  It’s not a problem, MLA7 allows URLs when the instructor requires them (section 5.6).  Whether a URL is used or not, MLA7 does require a date of access.  APA6 on the other hand says that date of access is not required, except in the case of frequently changing pages, such as found in wikis.

Most style guides require a single alphabetical list of References / Works Cited / Bibliography (the title is different from style to style).  The Council of Science Editors (CSE) also requires a single alphabetical list when using the Name-Year citation format, but if using the Citation-Sequence method, the list is in reference number order, not alphabetical order.

Joy! CSE also details a CitationName method of citation. In this style, the writer is required to compile the Reference List in alphabetical order, then to number the references in order, 1, 2, 3… , and then to go back into the text and insert superscript 1, 2, 3… in the appropriate places. (This method seems to make for extra work and opportunity for mistakes, but I speak from ignorance; I have never used this system.) (Nor wish to.)

This catalogue of exceptions, and it is by no means complete even for these particular documentation styles, is not intended to make things difficult. Fortunately, most students (and teachers?) normally have to learn just one or two styles – although there are schools in which each teacher may require a different style. I have always held that, if you understand why we cite and recognise the importance of the various elements required in references, it is relatively easy to switch from one style to another. Granted, you may need to look up the punctuation or the order of elements from time to time, other details too, but that is easily done.

Consistency is more important than strict accuracy, consistency and completeness and honesty. Consistency, to allow for ease of distinguishing the elements of the reference. Completeness, to ensure that the source can be evaluated even without retrieval, and so that it can be located and retrieved if required.  And honesty, so we can distinguish the writer’s own words and ideas from those used to support or supplement the writer’s words and ideas.

It is good to have the above off my chest. I was driven to write it on reading an external examiners’ report this evening. The chief examiner complained that some students did not use certain referencing conventions (listed in the report) – but it was totally unobvious as to which documentation style was expected by examiners in the subject.  One expectation, for instance, seemed to be that print sources and internet sources be listed separately, rather than “mixed” in a single alphabetical list.

This is not the first report I have read in which external examiners have commented on referencing, and if they are commenting, they are presumably deducting marks (or not awarding them) for citation and referencing which is different to their understanding and expectations. Sometimes you can tell that these examiners are using half-remembered styles based on style guide editions well past their use-by date. Sometimes you are just left uncertain and confused.

We cannot and should not expect examiners to know all the style guides in use. But it seems to me that, unless the subject or the examination requires a particular NAMED style guide, then it should not matter which style guide is used, not at the high school level. Consistency and completeness and honesty, these are key, these are what should count and be counted. Consistency and completeness and honesty.

And the greatest of these is honesty, for of that there should be no exceptions.

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