This question pops up every time I write an article (in the computer science domain), and I am unable to find a British English style-guide providing a proper answer.

Where should citations be placed within the sentence and its punctuation? Where to put white space?

E.g., which options are preferable:

  1. More coffee is always better. [XY]
  2. More coffee is always better [XY].
  3. More coffee is always better[XY].
  4. More coffee is always better.[XY]
  5. According to [XY], more coffee is always better.
  6. According to XY[XY], more coffee is always better.
  7. According to XY [XY], more coffee is always better.
  8. According to XY, [XY] more coffee is always better.
  9. According to XY,[XY] more coffee is always better.
  10. According to XY, more coffee is always better [XY].
  11. According to XY, more coffee is always better. [XY]

In the IEEE editor's style manual it says on page 34:

References in Text: References need not be cited in the text. When they are, they appear on the line, in square brackets, inside the punctuation. Grammatically, they may be treated as if they were footnote numbers ...

I would interpret "inside the punctuation" as ruling out options 1, 4, and 11, even though the grammatical treatment of footnotes is not quite clear to me.

The Springer guide does not appear to comment on the question.

Any other hints / links / viable styles?

  • 5
    I would opt for 2, 7, and maybe 10. If you write a paper with limited space, I would take Number 2, otherwise I would take Number 7. – Lot Feb 22 '17 at 9:54
  • I would use what is in the specific journal style guide, or match other examples from the journal. If for a thesis, match other theses or talk to the thesis secretary at your university. – Jon Custer Feb 22 '17 at 15:09
  • @JonCuster - sounds reasonable. Do you have a link to such style guides? (e.g. IEEE, LNCS, ... - I couldn't seem to find anything) – user1101674 Feb 23 '17 at 17:25
  • I like #10. I don't like to interrupt with a citation in the middle of the sentence. But sometimes you have to: "Bla bla bla" [ref 1]; but "Tum de dum dum" [ref 2]. But I'm in the U.S. and am not sure how it is in BrE. – aparente001 Feb 27 '17 at 8:12

As others have mentioned, all sentences should be grammatically correct. The citation marker of the form [X] may play the role of a noun, or of silent word.

1, 4 and 11 are never correct - they put the citation into the next sentence, where it doesn't belong. Similarly, 8 and 9 put it into the wrong phrase of the sentence.

3, 6 and 9 combine words incorrectly. Spaces can't just be ignored.

That leaves 2, 5, 7 and 10. These are all used, except that the exact form of 7 will depend on the referencing style in use. You could have 'According to Smith [3]', but not 'According to Smith [Smith, 2017]', The latter would become 'According to Smith [2017]'. Also, for 10 you need to think about how long the second phrase is.

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Since you specifically mention British English, one useful style guide for academic writing is New Hart's Rules The Oxford Style Guide. I bring this book up not because it is necessarily your authoritative guide, but because the book tries to describe varied styles in use and not just the their particular in-house style, so it may give you some general idea. Of course the most relevant style guide to follow is one used by your publication venue.

In the section about author-date references, i.e. (Author 2017) or Author (2017), the guide states

The reference is placed immediately after the statement to which it relates. If this happens to be at the end of a sentence the closing parenthesis precedes the closing point (but a reference at the end of a displayed quotation follows the closing punctuation).

This should correspond to option 2 in your list if the author's name is not mentioned in open text, or a variant of 7 if the author's name is part of the sentence.

For numbered references, which I believe is more common in computer science, the guide does not specifically mention the placement, but from the examples given, brackets are placed before the full stop, like this [1]. On the other hand, a superscript number (like a footnote cue) is placed after the full stop.2

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What does your prefered journal say and do?

(I'm not in Computer Science, so I'm attempting a general, non-field specific answer.)

Each journal is going to have its own style guide as to how to format the citations. There are likely to be generalities, but each journal and publication venue is likely to have slightly different preferences.

Taking a look at the "instruction to authors", as you have with the IEEE journals, is a good start, but as you mention, there's likely to be a bit of ambiguity in how to interpret those instructions.

The way I would approach this is to take some of the articles by big names in your field in the journal you're considering, and see how they do things. (This would be in the actual finished, formatted papers as published in the journal, after it's been through the copy editors - not preprints.) If you're not targeting a specific journal, then pick one of the big name journals in your field, preferably one which exercises good editorial control, and see how papers there are formatted. You would likely want to survey a number of journals and a number of authors, to see how much is field-specific style versus journal-specific or author-specific preferences.

There really isn't a formal way how citations are treated "grammatically", as they're not really grammatical elements. Claims otherwise are really just post hoc rationalizations. Instead, the treatment of citations is a stylistic one, rather than a "grammatical" one, much like the treatment of the Oxford/serial comma, or whether to put punctuation inside of quote marks or outside of it.

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I would go for 1, 7 and maybe 11, since the citation is used to back the whole sentence.

Type 2 citations seem to refer to the end of the sentence, especially in more complex sentence structures like: "Research has shown that coffee is dark, hot and always better [XY]." In such a sentence, I would assume that only the "always better" statement is backed by the source.

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  • 6
    I disagree: I have never seen options 1 or 11 and believe them to be wrong - the reference should fit within the rules of grammar wherein you would never have any words outside of a sentence. – Phil Feb 22 '17 at 14:05
  • Since the rules of grammar for citations are still under debate (academia.stackexchange.com/questions/49487/…), I would still opt for the less ambiguous alternative. – Frank Feinbube Feb 23 '17 at 11:26
  • 2
    I'm not sure it's less ambiguous in practice. Maybe the usage varies between fields, but I don't recall ever having seen a citation outside of the punctuation like this. To me, it comes across as sloppy, rather than seeming more precise. – Anonymous Mathematician Feb 27 '17 at 5:53
  • While I agree that options 1 and 11 are rare (but I have seen them), I disagree that they are sloppy. As mentioned, they allow for the distinction between backing the entire sentence, or just a specific part of it. So if they were commonly understood in this way (apparently they are not), they would indeed reduce ambiguity. – user1101674 Feb 28 '17 at 5:40

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