While adding references to a .bib file the other day I found myself putting the title field first as it provided more information about the citations than the author names. After some thought, I wondered why most bibliography formats don't do that to begin with; if the primary goal of references is to provide support for the topic at hand while also giving proper attribution to existing works and to provide avenues for further research by readers, would it not make more sense to put the titles of papers/articles/etc. first and then the author names? It seems to me that the important thing (in terms of the work being written) is not who wrote the cited works but the works themselves, and if citing multiple papers by the same person putting the name first provides somewhat of a distraction from the actual content of the citations. Particularly in the case of collaborative efforts, where a work may have been written by a multitude of people, the title of the work can get pushed aside by the multitude of names (at least when using a format that doesn't just collapse the names to "et al"). What are the underlying reasons for this, or is it just a social thing that happened because researchers like having a significant effect in their fields/their careers depend on it?
This Question makes sense in practical terms, but includes a misconception in the area of academic culture, when you say, 'if the primary goal of references is to provide support for the topic at hand [...]'. That is not quite right.
Also, disciplined academic writing tends to take the form of a dialogue (or in simple cases a dialectic), where differing perspectives are chucked into an arena and required to fight it out. None of them necessarily has to 'win': finding them all to be wrong is a positive result.
It is very often useful to label a view primarily as emerging historically from the body of some identifiable person's work, rather than hovering it vaguely in conceptual space.
Referencing has two primary goals.
The first is to help interested readers to identify and follow-up the material that you have recruited for your argument, so that they can, if they wish, follow your evidence in detail and, perhaps, find the stuff that you left out. The idea is (partly) that you have openly saved a reader time in either embracing or challenging your position. Under present archival conventions, the tracking-down of sources for this purpose (or any other) is almost always most efficiently done by starting with author name. Scrambling for titles on the web, although I now do it every day, does not (yet) count as an archival convention.
Second, referencing is part of the process of locating yourself in the critical discourse of whatever discipline you are working in. Your writing is in some sense an act of positioning your view in relation to others', even (or perhaps especially) if some other person's view has shifted over time.
For example... In film studies it would seem rather ignorant to talk about 'the male gaze' as a convention of camerawork and editing without (a) attributing the expression to Laura Mulvey and (b) noting that she changed her view over time (see Wikipedia, for shorthand).
Merely referring to ideas from published articles, blog posts or even comments by anyone is fine in its place (e.g. my doctoral thesis, here and there). For the most part, however, it usually works best to say something like, 'Aristotle proposes [an impressive idea]. Hitler disagrees [here, because of this].
Colonel Sanders inadvertently resolves that conceptual conflict by suggesting [that surprising thing].
That is also why we use the present tense: 'Roland Barthes says [something]. Michel Foucault (while never identifying Barthes) responds by saying [something that works far better in the real world].' You are taking part in a present debate, with points of view that are most efficiently located by identifying their authors.
If I compile a bibliography and ask myself what to cite my thoughts are "There was this work by X in 1995..." and sometimes "There was this work by X in journal Y..." but really never "There was this paper Z...". I guess many people's minds work like this. In fact in conference chat people usually refer to the "Smith paper from the 90s" or something like that.
So when I read a paper and look up a reference in the bibliography and see that the respective work is by Smith and Jones I usually know the paper from the context. So I don't wonder why the authors often come first but why the year often comes last at the same time because these two things are what I find most useful. At second thought this is not the worst solution since beginning and end are somehow more easily to spot than first and second place.
I'd like to add that I read some papers in Physics where the bibliography did not contain the title at all, but only author, journal, number, pages and year.
I have often wondered about the same question and cannot help but speculate that it is mainly due to historical developments. Maybe, in times when research was only a dialogue between a handful of people in each field, rather than hundreds to thousands of researchers worldwide, as it is nowadays, strongly tying concepts and findings to people seemed like a good idea.
Indeed, referring to papers by authors is quite impractical in various ways:
- Often, the same group of authors publishes several papers on different stages or aspects of the same topic. Thus, the author names are always the same and distinguishing the papers based on their author names is impossible. The titles usually serve better to highlight which parts of the work are described in the respective paper.
- Another usual occurrence is for the same group of authors (e.g. from the same lab) to produce joint papers on several different topics. Once again, using author names to distinguish the works is pointless. In fact, it could actively contribute to misunderstandings, as readers may know the respective group of researchers, but they might think of a different project by the same researchers than what the paper author is referring to.
- Projects and concepts tend to be gradually extended by different groups of authors. Such papers on the different extensions are usually connected by their titles, but not by the names of their authors. Just compare how many papers building upon treemaps mention treemap in their title (along with some specification of the novel extension of the concept), and how many mention Shneiderman in their title.
- Titles are chosen, whereas names are not. Sane authors in a given field will not intentionally try to pick a paper title that is the same as another paper title very closely related to their work. On the other hand, it is absolutely possible that several authors in the same subfield share a common surname. (I have more than once read papers where I had no idea (based on just the name) which (w.l.o.g.) Mr. Chen and which Ms. Li of the various possible ones the paper was talking about.)
- In general, of course, an author name can only carry information if the reader has heard about the person's research before. A (well-chosen) title carries information in itself, and thus lowers the hurdle to understanding the text.
So, the question remains why many bibliography formats nowadays still put authors into the foreground. I can see several possible reasons:
- Despite the aforementioned drawbacks, the benefit of changing (e.g. the formatting of established publication channels) is not worth the perceived risk of abandoning traditions. Established venues might also simply fear unnecessarily creating some chaos until authors have adapted to and become used to the change, whereas new venues may be more likely to replicate established practices as closely as possible in order to appear "serious", comparable to the established venues.
- While they carry less information, names are usually shorter than titles. Many titles can be shortened to a few words, but not in a systematical way that would work equally well for all titles.
- Bibliography entries are often not referenced by full names, but sometimes by abbreviations of author names. While titles are more meaningful than author names, the first letter of each word in the title (i.e. including articles and such) is rather less meaningful than the first letter of each author name. Furthermore, at least in fields with contribution-based author ordering, using the first letters of the first few author names is guaranteed to also include the "main" authors, whereas the first few words of the title are not guaranteed to be more important than the last ones.
In mathematics, in each of the several general areas of interest to me, the possible titles are so poor in information-content that they are nearly worthless, while the number of authors making the most meaningful contributions is small-enough so that author+year (with possible suffix "a,b,...") is vastly more effective than giving titles.
Coming at it from the opposite end, "new" authors who've written relatively few things are still far better distinguished by name+year (in terms of information content with the goal of distinguishing them, etc) than titles (once one knows the general field).
Thus, operationally, I look at author first. If recognizable, then I look at year. If author is not recognizable, then I look at the title as guide for general subject area, then year (for an idea of where-in-the-progression it is).
(Also, the bibliographic style of [number] is really not helpful in reading, since the number itself has essentially zero information content...)