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Is there a preferred/standard/popular citation style within the computer science field? By citation style, I'm referring to these three general methods:

  1. Using #'s, like [1] or [6,7]
  2. Using short strings like [SM15] or [Bob14]
  3. Using author-date style, like (Smith, 2015).

Browsing through the recent CS submissions on arXiv.org shows a roughly 50/50 split between options (1) and (3) above, with the occasional (2).

So I really have two questions:

  1. Which citation method best communicates "this is a computer science paper"?
  2. Which citation method best communicates what's actually being referenced?

(The answer to both may be the same, but I can imagine, e.g., something like "Everyone uses '[1]', even though 'Smith (2015)' is clearly easier to read.")

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    #2 is fairly common in math, which is probably what's behind the ones you saw citing things like that. – cpast Mar 20 '15 at 1:57
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Regarding your Q1: Both ACM and IEEE use citation style #1 -- "[1]", so it's safe to say that most readers of academic articles in CS are most familiar with that style. Therefore, if you use style #1, your paper will look similar to most conference and journal articles in CS.

Regarding your Q2: it is my experience that citation style #3 -- "Smith (2015)" -- is most effective for the reader. This opinion is shaped by my department -- Computational Social Science -- so I read a mix of papers from CS, Statistics, Social Science, Economics, and others.

My reason for favoring #3 is that it makes it easier to read the paper in line. Having read many papers in a given field, I am familiar with the most cited and most seminal work. If I see "Padgett and Powell (2012)", I immediately know what that reference is, or I can guess. But if I see "[5]", it tells me nothing. I have to go look at the reference list, then memorize that "[5]" stands for "Padgett and Powell (2012)" every time I see it.

But the nature of the discipline and the nature of the paper lead to some differences in the role citations serve in the text. In Social Sciences in general, citations have a structural in the discourse in a field. Citations often mark schools of thought, lines of argument, or research lenses. In contrast, in Computer Science citations have a much more utilitarian function -- they point to papers that provide theoretical foundations, that attempted other approaches to the problem, that solved sub-problems, and so on. In a way, these are the intellectual "bill of materials" for the research behind the CS paper. The numbered references are sufficient for this, giving anyone pointers to the "bill of materials" should they need them.

Another justification for citation style #1 is to shorten the page count for papers. In my opinion, this is less and less justified in an era where most people read papers electronically, not in print.

  • Page count is a big deal in the way computer science is organized today. Even for a conference that doesn't print proceedings, limiting page count helps limiting the amount of work referees have to do, and forces the author to avoid digressions. If #3 were the norm for a conference, I think a likely outcome would be that people are more keen to cite Li (2025) rather than Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, Satyanarayana and Swinneton-Dyer (2041). Which may be a problem in this age of bibliometrics... – Federico Poloni Feb 23 at 9:00
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A lot of computer science papers go through either the IEEE or the ACM, so if you use one of their standard citation styles, it will "feel" like a computer science paper to many readers. Author guidelines, including LaTeX/BibTex, can be found here for IEEE and here for ACM.

  • the IEEE link is now broken. I'm not sure whether this is the replacement – lucidbrot Sep 9 '18 at 11:48

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