Why you should use an author-date system of referencing

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Who’s that? by Andy Morffew Attribution-NoDerivs Licence

There are two main systems of citations and referencing. One uses the author’s name and the date of publication in the sentence where you are citing the source and lists the full references in alphabetical order in the reference list. The other uses a number as the citation (often superscripted) to indicate the number of the reference in the reference list. The reference list is arranged in the order in which references appear in the text.

Many people prefer the numbered system as they find the author names and dates difficult to read around. However, this is because they are trying to read around them when they shouldn’t be. Instead they should be reading them too because they contain valuable information. Author names and dates let you see instantly, as you read the sentence, where the information is coming from and when the research was done. When you are reading several papers on the same topic, a lot of the sources will be the same and you will start to recognise them by name and year. This is difficult in a numbered system because in one paper Smith (2002) might be number 16 and in the other it might be number 27. Hard to tell these are the same reference unless you keep flipping to the back. The numbered system is therefore actually slower.

The numbered system also makes it difficult to find references in a paper as they are not in alphabetical order. You can’t quickly see if a paper you have picked up has reviewed a particular source. Luckily with electronic versions you can get around this easily with a search, but it’s still an extra step.

Knowing the authorship of papers as you read them, and read reviews of them, is an important part of coming to grips with a body of literature. It’s the who’s who of the subject. So is knowing the history – the dates things were published – as it helps build the picture of discovery and can help you interpret older literature (published before some other things were known) and newer literature (published after some other things were known). Also it helps you to become part of the research community you are working in. You need to know who else is in that community and its history. You want to recognise other researcher’s names when you see they are speaking at a conference and you want to know which is their work when you meet them.

As you become more familiar with reading and writing with author-date systems it becomes easier. What at first might seem like clutter becomes useful information that helps you link the information to other information you already know. While journals often use a numbered system for space-saving reasons, you should always write using an author-date system. If the journal requires a numbered system you can always change over easily when you are done writing. That’s easy with reference management software like EndNote.

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