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I like to know what the citations are as I read and prefer parenthetical citations. Personally, I find number citations highly disruptive to actually use, since I need to flip to the references every time if I want to understand what they refer to. Why do prestigious journals [1, 2] use numeric citations? Is it simply to reduce word count?


References

  1. Science
  2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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    I find it is the opposite -- I find the author-style citations highly disruptive. Most of the time, I would prefer my first read-through of a paper to actually be without any citations at all so I can just focus on the content. After I get an understanding of what the author is trying to say, I will start "seeing" the citations in text and following up on some of them. Also, as I do tend do read PDF versions (or a computer+paper combination), most num citations are nowadays linked in the PDF; you can click on a [8] citation in text, and it jumps to the ref in the bibliography.
    – penelope
    Jan 20 at 17:22
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    Seems to be mostly a personal preference or opinion question. I find neither style to be a problem.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 20 at 18:20
  • 13
    I do prefer the names-and-dates, because that helps me understand the context... but, well, sure, tastes differ. :) Jan 20 at 23:11
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    “since I need to flip to the references” – that really is a problem that should be solved with something like mouse-hover nowadays. — I personally prefer the [D+50] style for [Doe, Jane et al. 1950] as it's much more concise than full name much much more informative that a mere number. Jan 21 at 8:14
  • 5
    Note that the answers here and voting on them will be highly skewed because most people here are mathematicians or computer scientists. Jan 21 at 9:04

8 Answers 8

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The citation style is a matter of personal preference.

proof: I prefer the numerical citations (especially if they are in superscript). Numeric citations are easier to skip, allowing me to focus on the content of the paper. I find the long author-year citations in the middle of sentences and paragraphs very disruptive because they take up space and force me to search where the sentence or paragraph continues.

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    And there are some very, very wordy titles once you dive deep into specializations.
    – Nelson
    Jan 21 at 1:40
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    Personal preference of whom? I think often the journal will dictate what citation style to use, even if both author and editor have a different personal preference. I completely agree with the second part though.
    – laolux
    Jan 21 at 2:00
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    @Nelson What kind of titles do you have in mind? Paper titles do not appear in the citations. Perhaps some journals omit titles from the list of references, but that is one step further and independent of this issue. Jan 21 at 9:00
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    In my diploma work I used abbrevations like [AFUM95], and the paper was accepted. I found it easier to use while writing, because I used an ordinary word processor for it.
    – Marcel
    Jan 22 at 10:36
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    @ChrisH I would consider the style [ABC01] to be common (although perhaps not universal) in pure math. I'm sure it's different in other fields. Its main advantage is that the citation is recognizable as the same throughout different papers and that, especially if it's a common one, you often don't need to even look at the bibliography to guess what it is. Jan 23 at 20:53
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I believe the advantage is mainly shortening the text. This can be substantial in some cases. If a short paper wants to mention 20 studies, then often the references can be reordered so that the reference looks like [3-22] instead of several lines of text listing all the first authors.

For longer papers, this reordering is not usually possible, so [3-22] is followed by [3,4,5-7,40]. Also, the cost of flipping to the end of a longer paper is higher.

I can live with this style. What I hate is when titles are dropped.

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  • Yes. But it is not just for multiple references in the same place. A single number is also much shorter than surname(s) and year. (In your 2nd paragraph both sentences are unclear)
    – toby544
    Jan 20 at 21:18
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    Dropping the titles seems to have occurred more in the past, in my experience. But, this is also a pet peeve of mine.
    – Bruce
    Jan 21 at 4:16
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    Yes, it's so much easier to find a paper by title + author rather than journal + author. Even given a year. Most people don't have two papers with exactly the same title.
    – Clumsy cat
    Jan 21 at 9:21
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    For me, finding the paper by title isn't a very effective technique. But seeing the title in the reference list is very helpful for telling me if I already know the paper, or giving me a clue as to whether I'd be interested, so I know if I should bother trying to find it in the first place.
    – Mike
    Jan 22 at 15:10
  • @Mike title seems useful when doing a broader search, for things like institutional repositories - bang it into google, with quotes, and you've got a decent chance. OTOH a lot of hits will be for other papers' bibliographies
    – Chris H
    Jan 23 at 13:26
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  • Citation styles are primarily arbitrary.
  • Citation styles are mostly based on tradition, rather than logical reasons.
  • Concise citation styles, like numeric citations, require less copyediting which saves the journal money.
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    I'm curious as to why this is down voted; seems to be on point. Jan 20 at 17:23
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    @Louic I do not claim numeric styles are more traditional. They're simply traditional for some journals and fields. Jan 20 at 19:18
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    I'm not completely convinced about the third point, but I certainly buy the first and the second one - people tend to interpret too much meaning into things which are mainly based on historical reasons and tradition (and sometimes inertia). +1 Jan 20 at 19:51
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    I don't agree with points 1 or 3 as answers to the question. When the journal started using numeric citations, I doubt it was arbitrary, and I expect they chose that style to save space. I think the amount of copyediting they save is tiny at best, and even if they save a lot, saving space is a much more plausible explanation for the choice.
    – toby544
    Jan 20 at 21:26
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    Not true, plenty of journals are still printed alongside their online versions. Jan 21 at 7:58
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I think there are a lot of good answers already, so this is superfluous, but it sums up my sentiment:

If I have numerical references, I can easily skip them when reading a paper and I can easily find them in the bibliography. They are also easy to note down on a piece of paper. It is easier to find reference 124 then to search for a name in a long list of authors... - Add to that, numerical lists are typically created by tools while some authors insist on handwriting author-year references. Great if the reference you are looking for doesn't exist...

The author-year reference then brings along the issues mentioned by other contributors: Does it become part of the text or it is a label? If I write it as if part of the text it impacts the writing style. Then how do I add a long list of authors?

And as others have pointed out, whom do you list? The first author? (The robust approach) or the group leader (recognizable name). My personal BibTeX libraries are internally author-name(-a/b/...) which works, but means you are potentially referencing a "nobody". This then might even impact reader interaction where you will be more attentive to a recognizable reference than an unrecognizable one which is objectively obviously wrong.

So numerical references provide a wonderful opportunity to attribute work neutrally in the written manuscript.

And on a comment to other responses: I agree that references without titles are problematic as most papers can be found with a title and an author, but random jumbled number with cryptic abbreviations are sometimes wrong and universally harder to find... (Even worse if the literature of interest spreads over a wide field of journals and sub-disciplines....) Fortunately "digital paper" is cheap and modern papers are no longer impacted by the inherent cost of printing physical books, so this is less prevalent than in the past. (Though still an issue...)

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    In math the convention when there are multiple authors is to list their initial in alphabetic order, so for example [MVW], [CMNN] etc.) possibly adding the years (in the previous examples they are [MVW06] or [CMNN16]). It helps a lot the readability of a paper when you can recognize a reference without looking it up in the bibliography. Jan 22 at 21:19
  • @DenisNardin In many fields papers have way too many authors for that style to be generally applicable.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 23 at 6:04
  • @MassimoOrtolano: By default, biblatex (or maybe it's biber?) truncates the list of initials when there are too many, so you get e.g. [CLPZ+01] - still much easier to tell which paper is meant at a glance (perhaps after looking it up in the bibliography once or twice). Perhaps more importantly, math papers are not published that frequently, so the likelihood of a clash of initials+publication year is pretty low. I imagine it'd be quite a bit worse if all the papers you cite are no more than two years old. I'm not sure what biblatex does in such case, to be honest.
    – tomasz
    Jan 23 at 21:15
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Well, this is probably one (yet unmentioned) reason for doing it - however, it usually makes sense not for journals, but for academic graduation papers like theses etc., since many of them impose restrictions on the total count of citations used. (For example, in one of the Russian universities, the formal requirement for a postgraduate thesis was (as of 2021) using no less than 120 references.)

Using numeric style, the task of complying with these requirements is easier for both the author and the verifier. Otherwise, the bibliography should at least still be kept in a numbered list (or should we employ manual counting?).

Another minor reason is that numeric citations are unambiguous, while "author-year" ones are not (it is not uncommon to cite several papers written by the same author(s) and published in the same year (maybe even in the same journal)).

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    Author-year citations are also unambiguous. Citation managers have by now mastered the art of adding "a", "b", "c" etc. after the year. Jan 21 at 14:57
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The main benefits are:

  1. Conciser text.
  2. Better readability once without all the [........] intrusions.
  3. Less foreboding content when "big name" authors (as distinct from their observations and hypotheses) are not in immediate view while reading.

The latter is especially important for graduate students who might be afraid to consider ideas in conflict with those of established researchers.

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The other answers here discuss the benefits of numeric citations, so I'm going to mention a drawback of this style (compared to author-date style citations). Sometimes when you're reading a paper, it's nice to see the historic progression of the references, to get a sense of how the subject has developed over time. This is particularly useful for a literature review or history of the subject. In such cases the numeric citations are annoying because you don't get to see the years of the work as you read through the discussion. (You have to keep looking back and forth at the references to get them.) Contrarily, if you use author-date style citations then this gives the reader chronological information as they read through your work.

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  • +1 @Ben Good point. Chronology is all-important when considering the actual - rather than anecdotal - evolution of the field of research. A chronological listing (or a chronological sort for digitized listings) will also help researchers avoid irrelevant or superfluous papers.
    – Trunk
    Jan 24 at 11:26
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Because they shouldn't matter

The author's text should explain their argument. That means their text must (or at least should) state their starting point facts or postulates, and then move from those onto their own work which builds on that base. If you need to know what "Ref123" is about in order to follow the author's reasoning, then the author hasn't written their text well enough. This is something that their reviewers should feed back on before it gets published.

Of course the author can assume the typical knowledge of the field and terms of art. But anything more specific to their work needs to be stated explicitly in their text.

Where references matter is for people who want to check that the starting point facts or postulates are actually correct, that the author is using them correctly, and that there aren't implicit assumptions which would cause problems. If you get to the point where you're checking this though, then you've already absorbed the author's work to the point that cross-referencing will not be a big deal by then.

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    As an argument for numeric citations instead of surname-year citations, this does not make sense. The surname-year style doesn't tell you what that paper is about. It tells you who wrote it and when. This is useful because readers are often familiar with the literature in the field, and because it makes the references easier to remember.
    – toby544
    Jan 23 at 14:43

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