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Here are some guidelines and rules regarding the use of footnotes for different journals in Earth Science and IT:

Footnotes are used only for author affiliations and tables. Incorporate all other footnoted information into text.

Source: http://publications.agu.org/author-resource-center/text-requirements/

Footnotes should be used sparingly. Number them consecutively throughout the article. Many word processors build footnotes into the text, and this feature may be used. Should this not be the case, indicate the position of footnotes in the text and present the footnotes themselves separately at the end of the article.

Source: https://www.elsevier.com/journals/information-and-computation/0890-5401/guide-for-authors or https://www.elsevier.com/journals/journal-of-volcanology-and-geothermal-research/0377-0273/guide-for-authors

I am wondering what the reasoning is behind making people avoid using footnotes. Can I not, in some cases, create more readable text by adding some kind of tangential information in a footnote rather than incorporating it into the text?

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    Stop reading these guidelines. They contain a lot of wrong or outdated information, and they are not a good source to learn good scientific writing. – Federico Poloni Oct 30 '17 at 15:25
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    As a reader I find footnotes distracting. If something is important, include it in the main text. If it isn't important why put it into a footnote? – Roland Oct 30 '17 at 16:14
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    @FedericoPoloni Though the guidelines are not helpful for learning scientific writing, they do reflect the policy of the journal. I have had footnotes removed at the editorial level, so at some journals this is enforced, and I think it's worthwhile to think about why. – AJK Oct 30 '17 at 16:46
  • @Roland I guess word limits. – Mark Oct 30 '17 at 22:13
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    If information is tangential and would disrupt the flow of text, it probably belongs at a different point in the paper (if at all). – Jessica B Oct 30 '17 at 22:43
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The no-footnote rule isn't universal in academia, but it is present in many other formal writing styles (journalism, dictionaries, narratives). In these cases the reader's attention is focused on the main text, and she can either ignore or investigate any external references. You ask whether a text with footnotes is not more "readable"; while it may contain more information, carefully sorted, those references disturb narrative flow.

In response to Federico Poloni's comment on another answer, explanatory or contextual text in footnotes does represent a slippery slope, in the sense that no-one would object to a single footnote. However, I question whether it is a fallacy: lots of footnotes can really get in the way of the presentation. Some works have so much footnote text that a reader hoping to absorb the whole work is forced to constantly flip back and forth to the Notes section. When footnotes are presented on the same page as the main text, they can even dominate the page layout. H.H. Bancroft's Histories cite lots of great primary sources, but are difficult to actually read and process because of the thousands of narrative dead ends in the footnotes. Perhaps some brains are more comfortable with that than others.

The footnote ban seeks to focus the reader on a single sequence of prose without a lot of dipping back and forth. Yes, this means strictly taxonomizing your content into "relevant" and "tangential" bits, and omitting the latter. I wasn't comfortable with this rule when I was forced to adopt it by a style guide like the one you cite, but I appreciate it now.

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If you don't stop/discourage researchers from adding footnotes, you will end up with articles with huge amounts of footnotes. As you are doing research you will learn a lot about a specific topic, and most of that will not end up in the final article. The temptation is to add that to footnotes. However, a good article is one that has a very specific aim and does only that. So you should resist that temptation. Such rules are there to help you.

  • Semms like a slippery slope fallacy. – Federico Poloni Oct 30 '17 at 15:26
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    I see how the exceeding use of footnotes may decrease writing quality, so that explains the second quote in my question. But prohibiting them altogether (quote 1)? Wouldn't you say that, even in a very focussed, narrow article a footnote can add, e.g., a helpful clarification under certain circumstances and increase quality that way? – ye-ti-800 Oct 30 '17 at 15:45
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    I don't find this answer helpful. You are saying that forbidding footnotes avoids one way of poor writing in scientific articles. But there are so many other ways of writing poor articles. Why not leave the decision about whether there are too many footnotes or whether they distract to the reviewers, like with all other possible textual problems? – Wolfgang Bangerth Oct 30 '17 at 15:55
  • In the journals I publish in footnotes are discouraged rather than forbidden. I would consider that the right balance. – Maarten Buis Oct 31 '17 at 12:44

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