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Time to bang some Eds?

jkgWhy do journals still have different formats for references, ask Jim Riding and John Powell*

When writing a paper or technical report, are you ever frustrated over formatting references and text? This problem must be all too familiar to many Geoscientist readers. We find it incredible that, in 2018, there is not an international industry standard format for listing previously published items in bibliographies/reference lists and within text.

Left: Jim Riding

In less joined-up times, it was perhaps understandable that journals wished to be distinctive. Prior to the 1980s, each manuscript was typed individually, so this was really not a major issue. But these days, when you can easily store a list of frequently-used references in a MS Word file, why does one have to agonise over the (frankly irrelevant) minutiae of, for example, ensuring that the volume numbers are in bold, or moving the year from after the authors’ names to the end?

True, most journals have broadly similar reference formats. However, substantial differences stubbornly remain.  Laboriously customising references and text formats can waste a lot of time. Digital ‘reference management systems’ are available, but why are these even needed?

For example, should one put ‘and’ or an ampersand before the final co-author’s name? Sometimes it’s neither! Some journals abbreviate journal titles while others don’t. Certain periodicals italicise them, and some prefer Roman font. Punctuation and spacing after the year of publication varies, as it does before and after the volume number. ‘Editors’ or ‘Eds’? What about DOI numbers?

jhgThese are some principal differences but, almost incredibly, there are others. Furthermore, other idiosyncrasies apply to formatting the running text. Should you italicise ‘et al.’?  Is ca, c. or ~ preferred?  Is it ‘Figure/Figures’ or ‘Fig./Figs’? ‘Personal communication’ in full, or ‘pers. comm.’?

This multiplicity frankly makes no sense. No single journal or publisher surely has a monopoly on wisdom here. The minor differences that persist are unequivocally cosmetic. This palpable fact, however, is not obvious if one peruses certain ‘instructions for authors’, which may leave one with the strong impression that one false comma in a single reference will result in out-of-hand rejection. Perhaps we are being a tad dramatic, hyperbolic and paranoid here, but we feel sure many readers will agree.

Right: John Powell

This is not a plea for reference anarchy; we fully realise that they must be 100% accurate and totally consistent - perhaps following American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines. We understand the important technical niceties of referencing, for example that one should always use an ‘en dash’, and not an ‘em dash’ or a hyphen between numbers in a page range.

We would simply welcome an end to the somewhat arcane reference and in-text formatting differences. Editors and publishers should get together and agree a simple, readily understandable format that does away with minor cosmetic differences – similar to lexicographic conventions for SI units.

If this situation came about, perhaps authors would be able to focus more on the science and their writing style. Maybe geoscience journals could lead the way? Over to you Editors – or should that be ‘Eds.’?

* Drs Jim Riding and John Powell work at British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG UK.