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Dan Davidson '11: Rethinking citations

It would be overly dramatic to say that citations are the bane of students' academic existences. Nevertheless, I don't believe I'm alone in finding them a time-consuming annoyance. It may simply be reflective of living on the country's happiest campus that I want to address this minor aspect of our lives. I feel, however, that citations are in need of rethinking.

For students, citing often drains time that could be spent improving a paper's content. Furthermore, it is frequently apparent that how well one cites has little or no effect on one's grade. This is frustrating and encourages students to cite sloppily.

The way we currently treat citations should also concern professors and administrators. In many classes, neither the time nor the resources exist to ensure every student's citations are in order. Simply having a citation does not prove that the source backs up the claim being made and is reliable. Even a technically flawless citation doesn't close the door on the possibility of plagiarism.

This summer I took a class at Georgetown and was introduced to a different method of citation that I hope takes root here. Instead of providing information about our sources in a footnote, we were asked to insert hyperlinks into the text that would direct a web browser to our sources. This method of citing can be seen all over the Internet, both in blogs and on Web sites of established newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Citing in this manner clearly alleviates some of the problems I mentioned earlier. Inserting hyperlinks is much easier and faster than writing out footnotes. It also makes it dramatically easier for professors to check students' work. It doesn't require too much imagination to envision how much time this would save our students and faculty while simultaneously decreasing the likelihood that a student could get away with making statements without evidence or using unreliable sources.

The most obvious drawback of citing with hyperlinks is that many sources we draw on in our papers are print materials — but using hyperlinks for online sources doesn't preclude citing print sources with footnotes. In addition, every day more and more information in print finds its way to the Internet. A hybrid system of hyperlinks and traditional footnotes would still provide the benefits I mentioned earlier.

This system may not be right for all classes. Some professors want students to learn how to cite properly using their field's style. It would be perfectly reasonable for those professors to continue requiring formal citations — I would only ask that these professors make it clear to their students that this is one of the goals of their course.

The grading rubric must also actually reflect this goal. It is unfair to demand that students cite properly but not to factor their performance into their grade. Some students will spend time working meticulously on their citations — perhaps at the expense of other parts of their paper — while others will do just the opposite.

The biggest issue with my proposition is that many teachers still require hard copies of papers. I'm not sure I can offer a solution to this problem. On the one hand, I'm inclined to say that all classes here should strive to be paperless. Imagine how much paper could be saved if not a single Brown student ever had to print an assignment. On the other hand, I find text much more strenuous to read on a computer than in print. It's easy to understand why some professors would be averse to reading all their papers on a computer.

For those professors whose classes are paperless, please consider what I am proposing. Hyperlinks will make students' lives easier and will increase accountability. Formalized citation styles exist for a reason, and professors who want their students to learn these methods have my blessing. But just because we have conventions doesn't mean we should follow them when the situation doesn't call for it.

Often citations are required simply for accountability. As any Brown student knows, checking formalized citations is too cumbersome a process to accomplish successfully in a large lecture class. Even in small classes, hyperlinks have a clear advantage over formal citations in terms of both ease and transparency.

Not only has the Internet provided us with many more resources for our work, it allows us to cite sources in a way that provides clear benefits to both students and professors. Hyperlink citations diminish the likelihood that plagiarism will go unnoticed, will make verification easier and will save time for everyone.


Dan Davidson '11 is a political science and music concentrator from Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at daniel_davidson (at) brown.edu.




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