Printable Version of this PageHome PageRecent ChangesSearchSign In

A Usability Plea for Better Citations

I just started reading Henry Jenkins's Convergence Culture. As is fairly common in the media sciences (the Convergence journal does this as well), the book uses endnotes for citations. While the book is interesting, I find this style of citation makes it far less usable (and thereby less enjoyable).

Endnote citations work this way: When a writer is trying to cite a piece of work that supports a sentence or idea, he adds a superscripted number at the appropriate place (like this1). The reader can then go to the back of the book to find the reference. In some books, the endnotes are shown at the end of each chapter, rather than at the end of the book.

Since all the reader has is a number label, he cannot identify the citation without spending an inordinate amount of time to find the corresponding reference in the back of the book. In the social sciences, knowing which work is being cited is often important to better understanding the text. If I see the sentence "Learning is a social process," I will understand it differently if the writer is citing Vygotsky or Lave & Wenger. I will not only better understand the meaning they are trying to convey, but also which intellectual perspective the author is coming from. It matters.

Since I am fairly familiar with media theory, I would like to know who Jenkins is citing. It can inform me about Jenkins and how his ideas connect to media theory. For instance, Jenkins conspicuously does not cite McLuhan, eventhough many of the ideas of convergence seem to be directly related to McLuhan's notion of a global village. I think it's interesting to know that. In addition, I would like to know if a work is getting repeatedly cited. If the ideas the work is cited for seem interesting, it might join my "to read" list.

As an academic, I like to know what people are citing; however, I don't want to be inconvenienced. With endnotes I'm given a choice. I can read the book deeply (looking up citations) and be frustrated by the inconvenience. Or, I can read superficially and conveniantly. That's not a good choice. I want to be able to read conveniently and deeply. Thus, I despise endnotes. I feel authors that use them are being disrespectful to their best readers.

In Jenkins's book, the case is further compounded because the endnote serves double duty. It can refer to a citation or it can refer to a note. Of course, the reader is given no clue about which is which. Often, I may not care about following up on a citation, but I always care about a note. If it were not important, the writer would not have written it. With endnotes, accessing the notes is (once again) inconvenient.

What particularly irks me about endnotes is that there are solutions out there that are more usable—better supporting the careful reader while not overly inconveniencing the casual reader. I prefer APA (American Psychological Association) citations and footnotes. APA cites use the name of the author and the year of the publication as a short reference: (Vygotsky, 1978). I would immediately recognize this citation as referring to Vygotsky's seminal work, Mind in Society. Footnotes are used for notes. Instead of being at the back of the chapter or book, they are located at the bottom of the page. I can easily put my thumb on the spot of the label, read the note at the bottom of the page, and return to the main narrative.

In Jenkins's defense, Convergence Culture serves two audience—casual readers and fellow researchers. These two audiences have different needs. The book chooses to appease the former, rather than the latter. The casual reader may enjoy that he can completely ignore citations and notes easily. On the other hand, I think it's a shame that Jenkins is so willing to sacrifice his peers for a popular audience.