When I visited Nanyang Technological University in Singapore a few years ago, I was sufficiently fortunate to discuss academic integrity with several people from across campus - including a group of graduate students. I distinctly remember my meeting with the graduate students because while we were talking about academic integrity, their struggles and their feedback on teaching, one graduate student said to me “we focus too much on the technicalities of citation and not enough on the spirit of citation”.

I loved this phrase because if we are concerned about students writing with integrity, how they cite doesn’t matter, but why and when they cite, does. Of all of my memories of writing as a psychology undergraduate, I recall most vividly my complete obsession with doing my APA citations correctly. This, in fact, caused me great stress and anxiety - far more than did the actual writing. I also believed it smothered my creativity; the girl who used to have poems and short stories flow out of her became the adult who could only write in certain structures (intro, body, conclusion) and formats (specifically APA).

So, if academia is interested in teaching students to write with integrity, and with independent and original thought, why are we so obsessed with teaching citation systems like APA, MLA, and Chicago? 

Jennie Young argues that it is because it is easy, much easier to focus on citation styles than the writing itself. This might be why, over time, the use of specific citation systems became a proxy for good, honest, academic writing. Education side-hustle businesses (like citation tools and editors-for-hire) even popped up to support this citation system obsession. 

To be sure, it’s likely that citation systems were developed for very good reasons, to solve one problem or another. But, like anything developed with good intentions, unintended and negative consequences can follow. And I think it is time to take back the spirit of citation from the systems and rules created by very “small powerful [and] influential groups”small powerful [and] influential groups”. After all, the rules, at times, seem arbitrary and capricious and nothing to do with what we might call “good writing”. One year we have to put two spaces after each period, the next, only one space. One citation system requires footnotes, the other, in-text citations. Do we put the first name of the author first, or the last name? Do I italicize the journal article title or the journal title? What’s the proper format for books versus book chapters versus journal articles versus websites versus...ad nauseum.

I’m not the only one who thinks we should focus on the spirit and not the technicalities of citation. Barbara Fister, in her piece “Learning Why, Not How”, admits that “sources matter” but the academic citation systems are only way way of describing or notating sources. Jennie Young argues that our obsession with citation systems has been so destructive to teaching writing that we should immediately cease and desist from teaching citation systems to undergraduates.

This is for certain a tough argument to be made within an academy steeped in tradition and the 20th century ways of teaching. As Barbara Fister notes, some will argue that we must teach citation systems otherwise our students will not learn how to respect intellectual property, the importance of copyright or how to give credit where credit is due. This is a spurious argument though as there are other ways to teach students how to write with integrity without teaching them academic citation systems. After all, the author Jennie Young argues, “the vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they graduate...it hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing...there are other ways to attribute credit…[and] the citation systems change from style to style and update to update”

To be sure, if you paid attention at all to this blog, you’ll notice I cite everything I borrow from others, all without a care for the stylistic guidelines promulgated by any of the academic citation systems.

It’s time to move on from using citation systems as a proxy for integrity and quality and start focusing on teaching students how to speak and write honestly, respectfully, responsibly, and fairly so they can become trusted sources of knowledge and information within and outside the academy.