Just a matter of time

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A recent post in a closed Facebook group for IB Diploma Programme Extended Essay Coordinators asked, “Would this be a complete reference for a painting?”

There followed a curious discussion, some 20 comments long.  The discussion inspired this blog post – and also got me reviving a post I started earlier this year on the same theme but had not managed to finish. I have now. My earlier thoughts are weaved in below, but let’s start with this recent, curious discussion.

The very first response declared,

The EE guide specifies that all online sources must have [Date accessed etc]

and thereafter the discussion focused on the date of access and its formatting and placement. After the person who posted the original question pointed out that the suggested reference did include the date of access (“Retrieved July 30, 2019)” that first responder came back with

(the Guide) requests a specific format for this and this point was reiterated in a workshop.

This same responder said in a later comment that the workshop leader had explained that having the date accessed in square brackets at the end of the reference enabled the examiner quickly to determine that the date of access had been included.

This raises a number of points – as it did in the discussion.  Yes, on the page headed Acknowledging the ideas or work of another person—minimum requirements, the Guide states that date of access must be included in any reference to an electronic source (whatever that means, the starting point for my original blog post as taken up below)

Regardless of the reference style adopted by the school for a given subject, it is expected that the minimum information given includes:

        • name of author
        • date of publication
        • title of source
        • page numbers as applicable
        • date of access (electronic sources)
        • URL.

and goes on to state

Examiners are required to alert the IB when minimum requirements are not met by a student, and the work is investigated accordingly.

IB has its own requirements for referencing.  While the IB does not legislate which referencing style is used,  it does require that the style used is used consistently.  IB also advises that when its own requirements are different to those in a published style guide, then IB requirements must be followed.  This is acceptable.  Many if not most of the published style guides state explicitly that, if an instructor’s, school’s, institution’s or publisher’s requirements are different to the suggestions in the style guide, writers should meet the requirements of the instructor (etc).  Say it loud: even if a style guide recommends that date of access is not needed, for IB assessments the date of access is needed.

But, despite our workshop’s participant’s protestation, the IB does not prescribe how the date of access should be presented, whether in square, angled, round or any other shape brackets, or noted as “Retrieved from…” or “Accessed…” or any other term, nor its placement in the reference.  There is no prescription stated in the Extended Essay Guide and no prescription in any other IB documentation.

So yes, I accept that having the date of access at the end of the reference might make it easy for the examiner to determine if it has been included, but this is a matter of preference, not a requirement.

It has also to be said that workshop leaders sometimes get it wrong. They sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes participants in workshops misunderstand or mis-remember what is actually said.  In the same way, textbooks sometimes get it wrong – or are misunderstood by their readers. Sometimes the technology gets it wrong.  The guide is not what the workshop leader said, the guide must be The Guide – in this case, the Extended Essay Guide.

[As I said at the start of this post, most of the comments on the Facebook post revolved around the question of the date of access.  There were just two comments (one of them mine) regarding the rest of the reference, either as example for the referencing of a work of art or this specific reference.   I wondered if there might be a need for the type of painting/ medium used (oil, acrylic, water-colour etc) and suggested that that might depend on the intended audience for the essay; an essay in Visual Arts might require more detail than an essay in History, for example.  I did not need to ponder on whether the artist’s name was “Davinci, Leonardo” or “da Vinci, Leonardo” or “Leonardo da Vinci” – this point had already been raised by another participant in the discussion.]

More importantly, there is the question as to whether omission of the date of access amounts to academic misconduct with referral to the Awards Committee – which brings me back to the post I started earlier.

What is an “electronic source”?

As noted at the start of this piece, one of the IB’s minimum requirements when Acknowledging the ideas or work of another person is the date of access of electronic sources.

Here it is again, the full list of minimum requirements:

Regardless of the reference style adopted by the school for a given subject, it is expected that the minimum information given includes:

      • name of author
      • date of publication
      • title of source
      • page numbers as applicable
      • date of access (electronic sources)
      • URL.

So, what is an electronic source?  This question featured in a recent forum discussion in Programme Communities in My IB (a password-protected platform available only to the IB community).

It may not be as easy as it perhaps should be to provide a comprehensive definition.  Most will agree that it includes items and information found online, on web pages and web sites and in online databases, and that is good.

But what about CD-ROMs or DVDs? They are digital resources, but are they electronic sources?

Personal or group emails found or generated online?

Material found on online databases including journal, magazine and newspaper articles? E-books?  Indeed any print or recorded material which might be downloaded and viewed offline –  sometimes these are scanned or facsimile transmissions of print sources such as can be found in Google Books or the Internet Archive, sometimes they are changeable or flowing, such as ePub versions; are these electronic resources too?

What of other filetypes such as PDF or PPT files?

Come to that, are there differences between journals and other material which may be available in print and electronically – and journals which are online only?

Is anything and everything delivered electronically an “electronic source”?  Are there perhaps categories or types of electronic sources such as “fixed” and “changeable”?

Librarians, teachers and students are often puzzled, confused and frustrated by these “minimum requirements” for citation and referencing – especially when those minimum requirements differ from the requirements of the style guide in use – and much of the discussion in My IB Programme Communities focused on this point.

What are probably the three most frequently used published referencing style guides used in schools offer similar advice – and they keep their options open.

MLA8, for instance, makes inclusion of the date of access optional – but it also offers this piece of advice:

Since online works typically can be changed or removed at any time, the date on which you accessed online material is often an important indicator of the version you consulted…

The date of access is especially crucial if the source provides no date specifying when it was produced or published (MLA Handbook 8th ed, p. 53)

It is worth noting in passing that the previous edition of the MLA Handbook, MLA7, made use of the URL optional with the default being no URL. This advice was reversed in MLA8:  it is once again the preferred option.  In many respects, there are no hard-and-fast “rules,” nothing is set in stone – a notion reinforced by MLA8’s basic principles #2 and #3:

There is often more than one correct way to document a source.
Make your documentation useful to your readers (MLA8, p. 4).

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association 6th edition (APA6) advises

When a DOI is used, no further retrieval information is needed to identify or locate the content (p. 191)

and also

do not include retrieval dates unless the source material may change over time (e.g., Wikis) (p. 192).

The advice of the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is again similar (note especially the last sentence here:

To cite original website content other than the types of formally published sources discussed elsewhere in this chapter, include as much of the following as can be determined: the title or description of the specific page (if cited); the title or description of the site as a whole (see 14.206); the owner or sponsor of the site; and a URL. The word website (or web page) may be added (in parentheses) after the title or description of the site if the nature of the source may otherwise be unclear. Also include a publication date or date of revision or modification (see 14.13); if no such date can be determined, include an access date (see 14.12). For frequently updated resources, a time stamp may be included (as in the Wikipedia example, which records the time as it was listed with the source; see also 9.39) (CMOS17, pp. 845-846).

with additional advice regarding “formally published electronic sources” such as journals:

Access dates are not required by Chicago in citations of formally published electronic sources, for the reasons discussed in 14.12. Some publishers and some disciplines, however, may require them (CMOS17, p. 833).

Again, note that final caveat.

In short, there are times when it may not be necessary to include a date of access and times when the date of access can be helpful indeed.  Chicago’s distinction, “formal publication,” gives us a useful term, a helpful category, which contrasts nicely against possibly less formal, less stable, less edited web pages.

But … the IB requires dates of access for electronic sources – and presumably for all electronic sources, regardless of whether they are formally published or not.  As noted, this can lead to confusion and frustration, since “The IB does not specify which style(s) of referencing or in-text citation should be used by candidates. This is left to the discretion of the school” (Diploma Programme Assessment Procedures 2019, A4.2.1) – but (again as noted earlier) the IB also demands elements which may not be required by the chosen style.

This point is reinforced in the General Extended Essay Report, May 2018, where we read (p. 6):

    • References and bibliography
      o These must meet the minimum requirements as summarized on the final page of the Effective citing and referencing document. Regardless of the referencing convention used, the IB have minimum requirements that supersede any other norms.

Nor is it a light matter. For better or for worse, in the Extended Essay Guide and many other documents, matters of citation and referencing are conflated with notions of academic honesty.  The minimum requirements at the centre of this discussion  are in a section on Academic Honesty, and include the note:

Examiners are required to alert the IB when minimum requirements are not met by a student, and the work is investigated accordingly (Extended Essay : Guide, (Feb 2016, [last] updated May 2019), p. 33.)

Of course, investigation does not necessarily mean that academic misconduct has taken place.  Many, possibly most, cases will be dropped. But the fear is there, the angst is there, the confusion is there, the uncertainty is there.

Helpful to the reader?  the examiner?  the writer?

So let’s recap: the first four items in the IB list of minimum requirements are probably standard, used in most if not all bibliographical/ referencing style guides:

      • name of author
      • date of publication
      • title of source
      • page numbers as applicable

It is the last two items which cause the most anguish, because not all style guides require a date of access for electronic sources and not all style guides require a URL – and the IB requires both of them.

      • date of access (electronic sources)
      • URL.

We have not discussed the URL yet.  Among the pieces of advice that students are given when Accessing sources: technology literacy—using electronic sources, the Extended Essay Guide advises students to

keep a detailed record of all references, in accordance with the IB’s minimum requirements, ensuring that the URL of where the source was located is written down correctly. This includes recording the date that the site was accessed.

The URL is wanted because it enables the readers to look for themselves at the webpage from which cited material can be found;  the date of access can be important in case the webpage and the information on it is different to the webpage when the reader looks at it.  The date of access can be helpful if it is earlier than an Updated note on the page – it might explain any discrepancy between the text cited and the web page itself.  The URL and then the date of access are useful when checking earlier copies of the page in the Internet Archive (or similar cache or curating platform) – if copies are available in the archive.

I’ll venture a little further: date of access can be akin to the edition number of print materials.  If you are reading a paper and want to check the context of a quotation, you need first to find a copy of the item referenced;  if having found a copy you cannot find the quotation on the page cited, you next check whether the edition in your hand is the same as that recorded in the reference.  If you are using a different edition, this could well explain the discrepancy (and your task of verifying the quotation may be all the harder).  Your edition might be earlier or later than the edition used by the writer of the paper; you need to check the edition number, the date of publication, the publisher, the place of publication.  Differences in any of these bibliographic elements could explain the discrepancy – the reason why the style guides (usually) advise including these elements in one’s references.

Yes, there are exceptions. Not all style guides require all elements – and there are times when their absence in a reference is unhelpful.

There remains the question, is date of access really necessary when referencing a formally published document found online, does it serve any helpful purpose?  Or is it an unnecessary demand by IB, an element which adds nothing to a reader’s understanding?  A URL, possibly, since URLs change and URLs disappear.  But journal articles published in journals with fixed publication dates, especially if they have fixed DOIs – Digital Object Identifiers?

DOIs are, after all, intended to provide a unique digital identification of objects (which might be physical, digital or abstract). In the field of academia, they are used to identify documents, media, articles, datasets and more.  It matters not where these are stored or published or posted, a DOI always points to the same “object;” an online search for a given DOI will always find copies of the same object, wherever it is posted. The URLs of  journal articles may change but the DOI often (but not always) remains constant.  When MLA8, APA6 and CMOS17 say there is no need for dates of access (other than when content might change or be changed), is there need for date of access?

Does IB need to catch up, perhaps to clarify its requirements?

I am in two minds. I was in two minds. I might even have changed my mind.

Better safe than sorry?

Until recently, the only reason I could think of for including date of access for journals found online is to satisfy IB examiners’ need to see consistency in the formatting of bibliographic references.  After all, IB does not care for the rationale behind the recommendations of the style guides; IB makes its own rules and requirements. And, regardless of what IB demands, omission of the date of access is not of itself an indication of plagiarism (or any other form of academic misconduct), cannot be – else the style guides would not suggest that it is optional and/or not require it at all.

Additionally, examiners may not have awareness of the nuances between a journal article with a stable unchanging DOI and (say) a newspaper report or a web-page whose content might change and whose URL might change.   We know only that IB examiners want to see consistent (and complete) formatting of references; they do not (at least they should not) care for notional correctness of the reference (and they don’t know which bibliographic style is in use).  So the danger is that students may be penalised for inconsistent referencing if some online sources include dates of access and some do not.  Better safe than sorry.

It’s not the best of reasons for including date of access, it has nothing to do with academic writing, nor with helping the reader.

BUT … there is another reason (at least one other reason) why it might be helpful to include a date of access for articles and papers with DOI location indicators. The DOI might not change – but the content might. And sometimes it does, sometimes the content changes.

Publishing of academic papers has evolved at great pace in recent years; the traditional model, based on print publication, no longer holds.  In days of yore, an academic paper would go through several stages of editing and peer-review before being accepted as final and published; it was not available to the public until publication in print. If it needed to be amended in any way, a correction might be published in a later issue of the same journal.

Online publication has changed the model. Now it is common for journals to post papers in a pre-print version open to peer-comment and review, then to publish the finalised print version which would be posted online, replacing the pre-print version, and then (if necessary) to publish a corrected version online, replacing the print version.

It can be even more complicated:  DRIVER – the Digital Repository Infrastructure Vision for European Research – recognises five possible stages of the e-publication process, tabulated here in this adapted table of  VERSION-MAPPING

traditional version e-print version DRIVER GL v2.0 version
working paper non-peer reviewed draft
pre-print non-peer reviewed submitted version
post-print peer reviewed accepted version
journal article peer reviewed published version
reprint peer reviewed updated version

The page also lists the Journal Article Versions (JAV) Technical Working Group’s taxonomy of seven possible versions:

traditional version DRIVER GL v2.0 version Journal Article Version (JAV)
working paper draft author’s original
pre-print submitted version submitted manuscript
accepted version accepted manuscript
post-print accepted version proof
journal article published version version of record
journal article published version corrected version of record
reprint updated version enhanced version of record


Where this concerns us with regard to the date of access, is that all versions may carry the same DOI.  If a writer references a document with a DOI but does not state which version is used, then the date of access may be the only way to determine the version.

The nuances of stages in the publication process may be lost on our secondary school students. If they find a paper they can use, they’ll want to use it. Oft-times and in many journals, in many disciplines, it may well be the pre-print version that they find because, once published, the paper disappears behind a pay-wall.

I have come round to thinking, perhaps the style guides have got it wrong. Perhaps they should be advising that it the date of access should be included as a rule rather than as an exception, whatever type of online publication is referenced, formally published or otherwise.

Failure to include date of access with a DOI or permalinked source might contribute towards loss of a mark if students are unlucky enough to be marked by an examiner who does not appreciate the nuances – especially if some online sources include the date of access and others do not.  Inclusion of date of access might not be necessary, but it might avoid loss of a mark for inconsistent formatting of references.


A long post this. Congratulations if you are still reading.  We are almost there – but there is a footnote.  The person who wrote the post in Programme Communities, asking What is an “electronic source”?  also asked the IB for clarification.  She got a reply and posted it in the forum:

I just received this reply from The IB Senior Curriculum Manager who conferred with the Academic Honesty Manager:

The reason we ask for the extra info on online sources is just to try to avoid confusion/ problems where the online source has changed or been updated, and also to try to encourage students to be more aware of the origins and purpose of the online sources they are using.

I spoke to our academic honesty manager in Cardiff about your query and she clarified that we would never take action/ penalise a student for not providing a date stamp for an online source. She confirmed that as long as the students use a formal referencing style, and do so consistently across the entire piece of work, that is fine.”

In other words, Catch-22:  failure to include dates of access may lead to an investigation for academic misconduct (failing to meet the minimum requirements) – but of itself, students will not be guilty of academic misconduct if they fail to provide dates of access.

My thought stands: if you want to play safe, give the IB what it wants, always include the date of access regardless of what the style guide says.   You won’t be wrong always to include the date of access when submitting work for IB purposes,  better too much detail in the reference than too little.

One thought on “Just a matter of time

  1. Thank you, John, for this very clear article and advice – the Catch-22 comment made me laugh. I difficult situation indeed, and I find it extraordinary that the IB would offer this clarification – an oxymoron at best. I have taken away some very good advice and been reminded to tell students to always stick to the basic rules, even if using a specific style in referencing. This is such a minefield…

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