Tied up in knots

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DOIs? Duh! No problem!!

No problem?

Web page URLs are notoriously unstable. Authors may make changes between one view and the next; hackers may make changes too. Page contents of a URL may change completely, or the original document might be moved somewhere different, on the same site, or to a different site. The MLA style guide no longer requires a URL as a matter of course, arguing that a good search engine will find a document, if the reference is accurate: knowing the author/s, title and publisher should be enough.

DOIs are different, and many style guides recommend the use of the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) when one is available, instead of the URL (Uniform Resource Locator). The DOI will lead to a stable version of a document. (More-or-less stable. The DOI Foundation recommends that minor changes need not be identified, although papers with major changes should be assigned a new DOI. Frequently Asked Questions about the DOI System #7. Should be.)

Curiously, MLA does not mention DOIs, even though they have been in use since 2000 (DOI Factsheet). The latest edition of the MLA Handbook was published in 2009, that of the MLA Manual in 2008.  There was time to think about DOIs before these latest editions were published – they must have gone the same way as URLs.

Both APA and Chicago/Turabian, on the other hand, state a preference for DOIs, when they are available. and this is where I start to get knotted.

APA6th ed. (2010)

APA is nice and simple. You simply give the usual information (Who, When, What, Where) and follow it with the DOI, as in:

Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014, April). The pen Is mightier
     than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note
     taking. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

IB makes things a bit more complicated, because IB wants a date of retrieval for material accessed or retrieved online. An APA reference for IB would read something like:

Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014, April). The pen Is mightier
     than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note
     taking. Psychological Science. Retrieved 12 May 2014.


DOIs are good. Enter the full DOI as a search term in a search engine and you get a list of pages which include the paper or which reference it.



Top of the list (in this search on Google) is a link to Sage Publications – where you can view the abstract freely, but unless you or your institution is a subscriber, you will have to pay $35.00 to download the paper.

(The Sage abstract page has changed slightly since I first went there, back in May 2014. URLs are unstable! I come back to the change later, as things get even more complicated.)


Lower down the results page, though, you will find pages on which the paper is openly viewable – hit number 3 in my Google search list, for instance.

It is much the same if I use Google Scholar, although here a different institution has made the paper – the same paper – available.


I haven’t counted the number of copies of the paper which have been made available, according to the two search tools. I only need one copy, and I am glad not to have to pay for it. I respect the need for and purpose of pay-walls, but am happy to find alternative routes.

Turabian 8th ed. (2013)

The Turabian reference is a tad more complex than APA – but only a tad. Turabian wants the date of access, so immediately meets IB requirements. It also wants the DOI – expressed as a URL. Since DOIs are registered with the DOI Foundation (actually the International DOI Foundation, IDF), all DOIs start with http://dx.doi.org/ with the unique code following that final forward slash. Our Mueller and Oppenheimer paper would be referenced something like:

Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier
     Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop
     Note Taking,” Psychological Science (April 2014). Accessed May 12,
     2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581.

The advantage of the full DOI-URL is that you can use this a live address. You can click on it, if the link is live, or otherwise enter this directly into the address bar:

You are taken directly to the Sage page, no two-stepping with search engines needed!

The problem is, of course, the paper is still behind that pay-wall. And, having avoided the search engine, you won’t know that other versions of the paper might – or might not – be available!


Complication #1

Now it starts to gets a little knottier.


If you take another look at the first Sage page we found, the one that has changed since May, you will see that this page offers us a PDF of the April version of the paper, with no journal page numbers.


The page we went to directly, thanks to Turabian’s URL-type DOI, does include page numbers. This second link is the June version of the paper, as published in the print journal, and thus the page numbers. The April version is a pre-print version!

The papers we retrieved, thanks to Google and Google Scholar, are pre-publication versions. There has been another pre-publication version as well s the print version.  Another one?  Can there really be TWO OnlineFirst Versions of Record?  Are they different?

The knots are tightening.

Here is the dilemma: should I use the DOI in my reference, or should I use the URL of the site where I actually found the paper? Probably the latter, so that a reader will find the paper I actually used, rather than a paper which might be slightly different to the latest version. Even if I am aware of a later version of the paper, I still need to cite the version I actually use.  In which case, should I declare that it is a pre-print?  I was not aware of this back in May, when I first found the paper, though I am aware now.

At least I found the paper, thanks to APA. I might not have gone looking, had I followed the Turabian link. I would have found the pay-wall, and – possibly – not explored any further.

Complication #2

Knots indeed, Good Gordian knots…

Turabian is a scaled-down version of Chicago, intended for writers of research papers at school and college level. As I started writing this post, I wondered what the full Chicago Manual of Style had to say about DOIs. What better place to look than The Chicago Manual of Style Online?

Oh help! The examples given here are for the short form, doi: without the full protocol and URL.  Short form or long form, simple doi: or longer http://dx.doi.org/?  Can’t they make up their minds? Can’t they agree?

No, they can’t.  The Turabian Citation Guide, published by the University of Chicago Press, still wants the full URL form:

Linkable URL or not? I sometimes wonder if students know which style guide they are using, especially in schools which prefer to use just one style guide. Teachers, too.  And Chicago is Chicago, and Turabian is Chicago – except when it isn’t… And if they do not know what they are using, or they think they do but they don’t…

Confusion on confusion, methinks.  What is one to do?

Complication #3

I like the comments and help that Noodletools gives, so I went there for advice. Sure enough, the form for a Chicago citation of an online journal shows that the short form is required:


While I was looking at Noodletools, I thought to check the APA example, and found, more horror:  APA seems to require, not the short form as in the Publication Manual, but the URL form!!  Closer reading shows that Noodletools is (rightly) following the advice of the latest edition of the APA Style Guide to Electronic References rules.

Gulp!  Help!! More investigation needed!!!

I found a copy of APA Style Guide to Electronic References online, and there I see (page 5) that the full format was introduced – by CrossRef and as an industry standard – in August 2011 (after publication of the Publication Manual – that lets them off, I guess).   The http:// form of the DOI, it seems, is seen as helpful to those who do not understand DOIs; what’s more, notes the guide, it provides direct link to the original publication.

Just to add to the delight, a footnote states that, because the DOI format and the changes to APA advice are new, “either DOI format is acceptable.” I am not sure how well this concurs with the advice given in the text itself:

You will find the original and updated DOI formats in your research; include the format that appears on the source you are citing (APA Style Guide to Electronic References, 5)

but never mind. The knots are strangulating enough, already?

Untying the knots

DOIs are here to stay. Not only that, an article with a DOI might be – perhaps should be – better regarded (by those who do understand the DOI system) than plain URLs. A DOI is a statement of intent.

Aesthetically, I prefer the short form. It looks better, it is less likely to need a line-break, and used carefully it can lead to copies of articles which are not hidden behind pay-walls, if they are available. It is also easier: the writer does not need to remember to add http://dx.doi.org/ in front of the DOI.  I think we sometimes make referencing too difficult; we forget that it should help the writer as well as the reader.  APA’s advice to use whichever format the source uses is spot-on, here.

But there is much to be said for the URL form as well. The http:// protocol is clear and it is known.  A teacher or examiner who does not understand the DOI system will still understand that this is a web address, and can still follow the link. Those who do understand the DOI system can still find copies which are not behind pay-walls, if they are  available.

Can we break the knots?

My thoughts are, for school purposes, for examination purposes, possibly for most academic purposes short of a PhD thesis or learned tome, consistency is more important than accuracy. That is certainly what IB rules: IB students are not expected to be masters of whichever style they choose to follow; what is expected is honesty in terms of attribution, appropriate signals and links when other people’s work is used, and consistency in terms of the formal referencing of other people’s work.

That conflicts with APA’s advice, use “the format that appears on the source you are citing” – but IB wants consistency, not necessarily correctness – and style guides allow instructors and institutions to add their own requirements and exceptions.  IB students are not expected to be masters of the style they are using, and examiners are not expected to be masters of every – or perhaps any? – style either.

Moreover, those citation style guides which claim to be flexible value that flexibility over correctness and accuracy of citation. Correctness is in the eye of the beholder – and correctness is not required.  As affirmation, in a question and answer FAQ on the MLA7 Handbook site we read:

…  While it is tempting to think that every source has only one complete and correct format for its entry in the list of works cited, in truth MLA style often provides several options for recording key features of a work.
MLA Handbook : Frequently asked questions

That goes for many style guides: there is recognition that there may be more than one way to cite a source, more than one way is acceptable. APA6 says, “When in doubt, provide more information rather than less (p. 193).

On consideration, then, for examination purposes (and especially IB examination purposes), I’ll be suggesting that students use the URL form of a DOI – http://dx.doi.org/ – when it’s available.  They should use this for MLA references too, when URLs are required. They should use the long form for Chicago references (as against the short form).  And APA, that goes without saying. This goes, of course, for any referencing system with similar “rules” – not just these three. Readers who do understand DOIs will recognise them and appreciate their use; those who do not know them will still accept them.

Knots unravelled, I hope.


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