In high school and college I remember whenever doing some research for a class, my English teacher then will look at the citation at the end and use a red pen to mark out any place where MLA format is not strictly followed. This is probably the reason that there are 106 million hits for "MLA How?" on Google.

Doubtlessly citation is necessary and very helpful, but I question over the strict adherence to a particular formatting style. But the problem is I have this idea that you must cite with 100% accuracy and adheres to a particular style. It was drilled into my head by my English teachers and professors particularly those in the arts and social sciences. Now I am in graduate school and I am faced with having to cite dozen of extremely well known literature with a very small audience in mind. Some of the authors are who works at another lab down the street or I meet everyday. In all honesty, the citation is done in the off chance someone who reads it and finds that he needs additional literature support.

By formatting style, I mean any generic formatting style MLA/IEEE/APA (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/) or otherwise that instructs you to cite as follows:

[First Name][Last Name] "[Text]"...[Publisher][Page Number][Chapter]...[Web/Print/Hardcopy...][Date Accessed in m/d/y or d/m/y]...

Don't forget each [...] needs to be separated, by ; , or a dot, or comma as instructed.

For one, doing a strict alignment with a particular format a huge time waster for the author and practice feels a little bit cultish.

Secondly, if the most necessary information pertaining to a particular reference is included in the citation section, do I REALLY need to ... align the format with a particular citation style with strict adherence? I think nowadays most people just look at the author and the book title and do an online search.

For example, is there a huge problem with writing:

A. Thomasz "Guide to IEEE or MLA format". Dover. 1999. Print.


Thomasz Antonie, Guide to IEEE or MLA Format, Dover, 1999.


Thomasz Antonie. "Guide to IEEE or MLA Format". www.guidetoieeeormla.com. Web.


A. Thomasz. www.guidetoieeeormla.com.

Actually if I remember far back enough in high school you would actually need to cite another person if he speaks to you. So if I had spoken to Mr. Antonie (made up person), then I would have to cite our conversation in a particular style. "Verbatim" was the word, or "Orally", or "Presentation"? I don't think I have ever done that after high school, even in reality much of what I know is by speaking to other people, yet I never reference any of those people.

I have not yet written a research paper. Is strict adherence to a particular formatting style actually followed in practical research? Is there any big problems that would arise if a particular citation style is not strictly followed?

This question is inspired when I was exploring around and seeing how people in other countries say France do not particularly care about this issue and everything works fine. I am in the hard sciences if that helps.

Comment: looks like an American phenomenon, just so you know in American schools we are taught for the span of 4 years to manually type all citations in MLA (including the full URL link) Here's a paper addressing this interesting cultural practice

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    doing a strict alignment with a particular format a huge time waster for the author – only, if you are doing your citations manually, which is a huge waste of time anyway.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 10, 2016 at 6:56
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    No, if you want your work published than strict adherence is absolutely necessary. I assume what @Wrzlprmft means is that many people use software to manage the citations, e.g. endnote or bibtex, but there are many others. Apr 10, 2016 at 9:54
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    Even in high school, American students can use tools like NoodleTools or Citation Machine or EasyBib or Zotero, among others to format their citations quickly, without having to remember every little nuance of the formatting rules. Apr 10, 2016 at 18:37
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    @ZachLipton Isn't it great to be alive in the future? Things just magically become convenient. Nothing like that existed when I went to high school and AOL was used for pretty much everything, even myspace was a new thing...we can only imagine what the future brings
    – Fraïssé
    Apr 11, 2016 at 0:59
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    Even when I was in high school (before MySpace was even founded) there were tools to use for citations. I particularly remember using BibTeX in the early 90s (had to have the right .bib file), templates with word processors (again had to find or get from teacher), and Bookend - but there were others even then Apr 11, 2016 at 2:13

4 Answers 4


First of all, almost nobody formats their references by hand. Typesetting systems such as Latex have a tool for auto-generating references, for instance from a bibtex file (which is essentially a local database of papers that the researcher often cites). Entries into this file are also not really manual in most cases, as bibtex entries for papers can usually be obtained via a quick web search from the publisher. For instance, in the ACM Digital Library (see example entry here), you can click on the right-hand side on Export -> Bibtex and obtain a bibtex entry. Other typesetting systems, such as Microsoft Word, usually have similar plugins or features.

Now, why would your English teacher (or publishers) even care about whether you write Thomasz Antonie or T. Antonie (or Antonie, T., ...)? At the end of the day, this is not so much about understandability of the reference, but more about giving the paper a more professional look-and-feel. For journals it is important to retain their "trademark" optics. This includes obvious aspects, such as font size, column layout, or margins, but also extends to using a consistent reference style within each paper, and also across papers published in the same journal.

  • I just found out about auto reference tools recently. I am using citethisforme.com, do you have better suggestions? On your remark about "why would teachers care"...I was raised in an era without these auto reference tools and at an American school, everything was standardized: SAT, ACT, MEAP, TAKS, AP, and of course, MLA.
    – Fraïssé
    Apr 10, 2016 at 8:42
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    Microsoft office includes a pretty robust citation tool by default.
    – mkingsbu
    Apr 10, 2016 at 14:26
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    @mkingsbu Here is the funny thing as mentioned in parlorpress.com/pdf/walker--everything-changes.pdf, when microsoft came out with its citation tool, MLA immediately changed MLA style rendering the tool useless, and when microsoft updated it, MLA changed it again so the tool would not be used. I lived through this age. Of course I knew the citation tool existed, I also knew that it was useless because it was not the actual newest version of "MLA standard", who knew whatever happened in all those years I stopped writing essays maybe they finally came to an agreement
    – Fraïssé
    Apr 11, 2016 at 1:03
  • "…and when microsoft updated it, MLA changed it again so the tool would not be used." – is this actually mentioned in that document?
    – user1686
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:16
  • For referencing software, the standards for those of use who use word processors rather than LaTeX are Mendeley (free), Zotero (free), EndNote (your uni prob has a licence), Reference Manager (paid) and Refworks (cost depends on uni). On Mac people can also use Papers (paid) and if you use Google Docs there is Paperpile (paid). Jun 7, 2018 at 9:02

No. Most people use automatically generated citations and references. Usually I find some errors (often case errors) and fix them. But strict adherence to a citation style is typically obtained by the copy editor of the journal, or nor at all.


In my field (mathematics), citation style is almost irrelevant. Journals have house styles and most people more or less try to follow them. But I just can't imagine a paper being rejected for citation style issues. Sometimes a copy editor will correct the citations; sometimes not. As a referee I have occasionally complained about lack of citations for material that the authors take for granted as background knowledge, and I have occasionally suggested corrections to the spelling (especially capitalisation) of some cited titles. But given the often illogical and internally inconsistent nature of citation styles I would likely just ignore even relatively blatant inconsistencies.

People tend to be a bit more careful when writing a thesis than for research articles, and of course professionally published books normally receive a thorough copy editing anyway.

I am pretty sure things are quite similar in computer science and physics. At the opposite end, a lot of people in the humanities seem to be obsessed about this kind of thing. I suspect this is related to the fact that they typically have no way of checking whether a claim is objectively true or objectively false. A lot is essentially a matter of opinion. As a result, typical authorities in those fields are never wrong, or rather, would never admit to being wrong. Since walking off in the wrong direction and changing course when you realise it is a key part of progress, this is a very unhealthy atmosphere that tends to favour mediocre, anti-innovative people who obsess over trivial details that are objectively decidable, so that they find (trivial but verifiable) errors in other people's work while making sure they can't be attacked in this way by their kind.

All that said, there are good reasons for citation styles and one shouldn't just ignore them. In particular, since URLs have a habit of becoming invalid after a few years, just naming author and URL (as in the fourth example) is not a good idea. It's bad enough that cited websites can change their content, but with so little information it can even be hard to track down the contents of one that has disappeared.

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    Physicist here. You can indeed see the citation format of choice changing as you read dissertations 3, 5, 8, 12 and 20 years ago. From what I can tell, they all strictly follow one rule: the default LaTeX output. Apr 10, 2016 at 13:25
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    One reason why Humanities folk care so much is because citation in the Humanities is considerably more complicated than in the sciences. A book written by one person, in an edition by a second, translated by a third, in two interleaved variants – what's even the date of that thing? And if it's a manuscript or an incunabula rather than a book... BibTeX can't even approximately cope. I think humanists obsess about citation details the way physicists (in LaTeX) obsess about axis labels and units formatting. Apr 10, 2016 at 23:24
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    Computer Scientist here. In the cases where @user1717828's comment doesn't apply, the rule is instead: Whatever BibTex style the journal/conference tells you to use. In addition, the data of the citation is automatically fetched via a script fairly often. IIRC, for my M.Sc. thesis I only had to type one or two full references while the rest was fetched from a database using a short literature key.
    – anderas
    Apr 11, 2016 at 7:19

There are various reasons for this strict format. It makes the reference easy to track. You want to make it as easy for the readers as possible; things that an author invests in, the reader doesn't need to - as the reader should be treated as the more important part of the game - after all, it's the reader for whom an essay is written; without him/her, it's an exercise in futility. Always respect the reader.

Also, in earlier journals space was at a premium, and a compact, yet predictable organisation of, say, a journal reference without superfluous wording (which requires strict ordering of volume/number/year to avoid confusing volume, pages, year etc.) is necessary. Space is less an issue with electronic journals, but is still an issue for paper-based ones.

As others have pointed out, the task is much easier now, due to the existence of software that helps you doing that. It's strongly recommended to use it, as it will much simplify your life.

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    Does it make them easy to track? Funnily enough, the "old condensed reference style" always suggests to me that the journal does not want me to look at any references in the first place. A more extensive reference would make it way easier . The number one entry frequently missing is the title, though that would be the best indicator as to whether a paper can be interesting in a reference list. The cryptic abbreviations are another bane of the publishing word as they are pretty much ambiguous.
    – DetlevCM
    Apr 10, 2016 at 11:58
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    That was to save paper space. Nowadays journals are more and more switching to including the title of a referenced paper. And the abbreviations are slightly cryptic, but you get to know them for the journals in your subject very quickly. The full names are totally redundant and make it harder to find the relevant information.
    – Karl
    Apr 10, 2016 at 12:37
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    @Karl Exactly what I wanted to say. It is a hurdle for the beginner, but if you have to handle a lot of references, this becomes more convenient. DOIs do not exist for a long time, and also, you do not see the journal where it was published (and yes, if you work in the field, you know the journal). Apr 10, 2016 at 14:23
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    @DetlevCM whoa, is that really common in other fields to omit titles? I don't think I've ever seen a paper (even ones published 60+ years ago) that didn't include the title of referenced works. Apr 10, 2016 at 19:46
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    @guifa Fairly common in engineering/chemistry. You get the author, year - a cryptic journal abreviation and page numbers...
    – DetlevCM
    Apr 11, 2016 at 4:45

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