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I find it hard to find a comprehensive overview about what kind of citation styles there are, and what should be taken into consideration to choose one.

It seems to me that the most important factor is when the journal/conference requires a specific citation style. Another factor is that it might be better to use what the people in the field are used to. But what advantages are there for different citation styles, apart from the fact that some are more established?

E.g. I see that numbered citations sorted by occurrence make it easy to find the citation listed in the bibliography while reading the paper from front to end. (Author,Year) citation styles allow the reader to recognize names but could possibly be ambiguous when an author published two papers in the same year. Why aren't both approaches combined to keep the advantages of each, and cite in-line with (Name Year [1])?

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There exist strong differences in humanities vs. STEM how literature is read, written and therefore cited.

For example, in humanities it is much more important due to e.g. schools of thought who has written something than in STEM. Even in STEM some journals ask you to give the page of a book when citing those, some not.

There is likely no good overview, because in the end the editor should know best, what citation style is the most efficient and useful one for the content, format, author- and readership of that journal.

In STEM many journals don't want all author names in the reference list, rather due to shortness than usefulness imho. To me, personally, it's often much more important to see which last author/group leader conceived an experiment rather than which first author PhD student did most of the exeperimental work with >5 other co-authors which becomes more and more common.

For review articles with >100 references it's often simply not practical to show all co-author names. For letter articles, representing often high importance of the results, the first author et al. often publishs several papers focusing on a dinstinct research question/method/object and deserves more highlighting and fame.

Even withing a single scientific branch like physics you will therefore find very different citation styles serving different purposes for different publishing formats.

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As you note, the most important factor when deciding is what the publication venue requires. But sometimes (e.g. a thesis) you may have a choice. There are lots of variations in detail, but ultimately (at least in STEM) it comes down to "Author/year or numbered". There are advantages to both, IMHO (and this does come down to opinion in the end):

Advantages of Author-year

  • It's often easy to see at a glance what paper is being referred to. Sometimes you've never heard of the author, and have to look at the reference list to see which group it is... but sometimes it's a famous paper, and you don't have to check the end of the document to identify it. Numbered papers provoke much more front-to-back flipping for me than author/year ones.
  • Sentences can sometimes flow more naturally : "Bloggs and Stevens (1903) showed that..." is nicer than "[1] showed that". Note, though, that there's nothing to stop you including a name from time to time with a numbered scheme ("Bloggs and Stevens [1] showed that...")
  • Some people feel that because it's more up-front about the contribution of others, it's more "collegiate". (er, OK. By "some people", I mean "somebody said to me once").

Advantages of numbered

  • Brevity.
  • It can make it easier to let one's eye skim over the citations and concentrate on the content, without being distracted by lots of names and years.

Some fields are wedded to one approach, some use both. I gather that some in the humanities have methods that fall into neither of these categories!

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Advantages ans disadvantages of the different citation styles have been listed already in the other responses. However, for myself as a reader of many papers, thesises etc. the citation style for the reference in the text has become more and more irrelevant with time because I know what I am interested in. Acordingly I adjust my way of reading and I assume many other people do so.

What is more relevant to me is the entry in the bibliography and how many pieces of information are included. For example I prefer a complete author lists and also the title. And this is - I think - not really opinion based because such information is always helpful and never unnecessary.

Therefore my advice, if you have a choice: include as many relevant pieces of information as possible in your bibliography and choose the representation in the text (numbered, author/year etc.) according to your personal taste.

  • "Such information is always helpful".... well, usually. Unless you're citing something with a thousand authors :-) – Flyto Aug 16 at 21:16
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    Then it is also helpful. The number of co-authors is an important information by itself. – Alexander Aug 16 at 21:23
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This is essentially personal opinion, I'd be very surprised if there is a measurable difference.

That said, areas have their traditional citation styles, most journals have templates and suggested citation styles. Uniformity makes it (a tiny bit) easier to get the information across, and that is the central goal here. It also makes the journal (or book, for that matter) look more orderly, thus professional. Also a goal.

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