Friday, August 16, 2013


Citation Systems
Which is the best?

There are several distinct conventions authors can use to cite the sources they use in their research.  Individuals often have very strong beliefs about which convention is best.  And professional organizations have issued lengthy guidelines.  Among the best known and most widely used are those of the American Psychological Association, the Modern Language Association, and the University of Chicago Press.  Some research journals have their own systems. 

Is one of these better than the others?  No, they are all just fine.  They are all merely conventions.  Saying that one is better than another would be like claiming that driving on the left side of the road is better than driving on the right.  Both are fine as long as everyone knows and abides by the rules.   

There is only one criterion for excellence in a citation system.  If your reader can easily check your sources for accuracy, the system is good.  If your reader cannot do so, the system is bad.  Specific format does not matter at all if it meets this criterion. 

But tastes differ, people have preferences.  As an author of text books and reference works in research methods, I wanted to know what my readers prefer.  So I did some market research among potential readers—students in research methods courses in the social sciences and applied disciplines such as nursing, social work, and education.  I prepared two versions of a short paragraph, one citing sources in parentheses in the text of the paragraph and the other citing the sources in footnotes or endnotes. 

The results were overwhelming.  In the first group of 47 students surveyed, 42 preferred the endnote system, 5 didn’t care, and not a single student opted for the in-text citation system.  In psychology courses, the in-text citation system did better, probably because the American Psychological Association uses an in-text system, and it is a powerful presence in the fields of psychology and education.  But in no group of respondents did more than 20% ever opt for an in-text system.  Readers who offered an explanation said that in-text citations were “annoying,” that they “got in the way,” and that they “cluttered the text.” 

Convinced by this market research, I have used footnotes or endnotes for citations whenever possible. 


I would appreciate your help with the following survey.  I am writing text books and
reference works for graduate students in research methods, and I would like to learn from potential readers your preferences about the format of the text.

The survey is anonymous.  You are under no obligation to participate.  If you choose not to participate just return these pages blank.

Thank you,
W. Paul Vogt

The passages on the next page are identical in content, but they differ in form.  The first version of the passage includes the citations in the text.  The second version provides the citations as endnotes.

If you were consulting a reference book or text book, which of the two passages would you rather read?

_____Version 1 with citations in the text

_____Version 2 with citations as endnotes

_____No preference

If you would be willing to share the reasons for your preferences, please explain them below.  I would appreciate learning about them. 

Version 1—Citations in Text

While internet surveys are becoming more common, many scholars (Baker, Curtice & Sparrow, 2002; Schoen & Fass, 2005; see also Couper, 2000; Dillman, 2000) continue to express skepticism about their value, especially as concerns sampling bias.  On the other hand, several survey experiments comparing Internet surveying to more traditional modes (Krosnick & Chang, 2001; VanBeselaere, 2002; Alvarez, Sherman & VanBeselaere, 2003; Chang & Krosnik, 2003; Sanders, Clarke, Stewart, & Whiteley, 2007) have shown that well-conducted Internet surveys can be as effective as other methods of sampling and surveying.

Version 2—Citations in Endnotes

While internet surveys are becoming more common, many scholars[1] continue to express skepticism about their value, especially as concerns sampling bias.  On the other hand, several survey experiments comparing Internet surveying to more traditional modes[2]  have shown that well-conducted Internet surveys can be as effective as other methods of sampling and surveying.

[1] Baker, Curtice & Sparrow, 2002;  Schoen & Fass, 2005.  See also Couper, 2000;  Dillman, 2000.

[2] Krosnick & Chang, 2001; VanBeselaere, 2002; Alvarez, Sherman & VanBeselaere, 2003; Chang & Krosnik, 2003;  Sanders, Clarke, Stewart, & Whiteley, 2007.



  1. If there are only a few references I don't mind to put the in the text. But with a few, I mean 3 or less per page!

    In any other situation - and that would be any academic writing, given you'll have more than 3 references per page - I'd go for footnotes, given it makes the text more readable.
    I prefer footnotes over endnotes, because if you do want to see the source, you don't need to go back and forth to the endnotes.

    Dennis Bours

  2. Dennis,
    I agree completely. Publishers used to balk at footnotes, but modern typesetting technology makes it no more complicated to put footnotes where they belong. At least Guilford Press, where I've published my most recent work, has no problem with putting footnotes at the foot of the page, where readers usually want them.

  3. Hi Paul! Call me crazy, but I've been reading academic literature in the social sciences for so long now that I have developed a strong preference for APA in-text citations, and find it a pain to go hunting for endnotes. It's also the only style I've used for writing since high school, and THAT as we know was done with a pen and paper! :-)

    1. Sheila,
      I agree with you about endnotes, but footnotes, especially, those at the foot of the page, combine the virtues of non-cluttered text with not having to hunt for endnotes.
      I grew up on Turabian's (University of Chicago) style, but I've become a polyglot citation speaker--whatever the publisher or journal wants I'll give.
      One the thing about the APA style I don't like is replacing names with initials. Seems so impersonal.

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