September 23, 2003

Bibliographic Brouhaha

by Nick Montfort · , 11:04 pm

Scott and I almost got into a bar fight Sunday when discussing the MLA and Chicago Manual of Style bibliographic format for electronic resources.

I find it absolutely silly to require that every electronic resource bear a publication and access date in its bibliographic entry. If I cite an article from an online magazine that was published in May 1998, and I know quite well that the article hasn’t changed since then, there is no reason I should include the date that I looked at it. Doing so adds unnecessary clutter, blurring and obfuscating the publication date of the resource, and simply provides a form of surveillance of scholars and their Web-reading habits. (Do you mostly read on the weekends? Right before your article is due?) Yes, in some cases (malleable blog entries, works like The Unknown) it does make sense to note both when you think something was published and when you accesses it, but that shouldn’t apply to everything on the Web. If someone cites my undergraduate thesis or a dated item on my Web site, they know perfectly well when it was published, as much as they know when the usual book was published by looking at the copyright page.

Scott, let’s hear your problems with this approach again. I know there’s an argument from the standpoint of things like the Internet Archive, but I don’t see how my providing the date of access of that May 1998 article helps you any there. Maybe others (Matt K.?) will chime in with an explanation of why the stylists in Chicago have the right idea here and why I’m off the mark. To me, this requirement seems like an attempt to frame everything on the Web as constantly changing and ever-suspect, and thus in need of up-to-the-minute access info, in opposition to staid and stable print sources.

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13 Responses to “Bibliographic Brouhaha”

  1. Jill Says:

    Oh, perfect timing, I’m just busy making an overview of Chicago reference style for our MA students, and URLs are of course rather important.

    Like Nick, I don’t like the clutter of an access date for each bibliographical entry, so for my PhD thesis I put a sentence under the “Works Cited” heading noting that unless otherwise stated, all web references were valid as of early May 2003, when the thesis was finished. I did actually go through and check them at that point too, though not word for word, so I suppose in theory some may have changed. Some URLs were broken by the time I finished the thesis, and for these I put in the access date (or month, surely that’s sufficient, mostly) and a note in the reference that the site had gone.

    I know that’s not quite according to the official style guides, but I was fortunate to be allowed to use whatever style I wanted, including a self-invented one, so long as it was consistent and the crucial information was present.

  2. torill Says:

    Well, I like to have the access date there. The web IS malleable, and people DO alter stuff. As to the thesis being published at a certain date anyway; it might get removed from the net and re-issued – what do you, the reader, know about how secure the information following an electronic document really is? It is a matter of trust, even more than when we deal with a physical object.

    As for a bar fight between Nick and Scott over bibliography? Ohhh, I’d love to see that – could we get a re-run, please, in a place with decent, web-cast surveillance?

  3. Matt K. Says:

    I don’t like the dating requirement, and truth be told I often find myself guesstimating when I have to draw up a bibliography that requires it. So much for accountability. I like Jill’s approach much better, and think that’s all that’s really needed.

    I think the dating requirement has less to do with surveillance than a general anxiety about electronic resources, the notion that the Web is some gaseous, vaporous data cloud–a self-consuming cyber-super nebula, as I put it on a list a few weeks ago. Dating diminishes the value of electronic resources by underscoring their putative ephemerality, as if the scholar is saying, pre-emptively, “Don’t blame me–it was there when I looked.”

    Alan Liu has dealt with this recently in preparing the bibliography for his most recent book, so I suggest asking him to weigh in here as well. One problem I know he ran into was discriminating between different versions and states of a site when both were important to the historical progression of his arguments. That’s where dating (obviously) becomes critical.

  4. scott Says:

    Just a quick note inbetween classes (MW are tough). As Nick said, my main reason for arguing on behalf of the MLA and Chicago style decision to include access dates is that, given that we now have a pretty good archive of a high percentage of the documents on the Web, in the Internet Archive, the date of access is useful information. I would argue, as per the MLA, that both the best available date of publication and the date of access should be included in a bibliographic citation. While I understand Nick’s concern that this could imply a kind of “surveillance” and MK’s observation that including the date could underscore the putative empherality of a web resource, I’m willing to give the standards-makers the benefit of the doubt. It’s no secret that the Web is variable media, and in comparison to print, “unfixed.” I think that this is not necessarily a weakness of the medium but can in fact be a strength. Web documents have the capacity to change and evolve over time. With the available archive, scholars now have the opportunity to study variable documents as they exist in different states over the course of time. I could be wrong, but don’t think that the bibliographic standards-makers are placing a value judgement on the relative worthiness of information on the Web by asking for an access date. Experience suggests that much of the data on the web *is* empheral, at least in the sense that it moves from server to server, or in some cases disappears altogether. With the “wayback machine,” we can research how a given resource existed at a particular time, which seems particularly valuable for critics.

    While I don’t think that Jill or Nick’s approach (these resources were all available as of this date) are necessarily bad, I’d argue that the reason we have standards is that we want to be as consistent as possible in bibliography, and that a rule that necessitates fewer exceptions is better than one that necessitates more exceptions. Many works of network literature utilize the variable capabilities of the network-as-media. My example for Nick was The Unknown, which changed a great deal over the course of the four years that we wrote it. We reveled in the extensibility and mutability of the network. For instance, when a snide reviewer wrote a negative review, specifically citing the page fbifiles.htm, we went back and rewrote the page in order to make fun of that same reviewer shortly after his review was published. It would seem to be only fair play for the critic to be able to point out that the same document (unknown scene) was different before he wrote his review than it was after his review was published. I think, as MK and others have noted, that different bibliographic standards should apply to network documents than apply to books. But I’m not insulted by the Chicago Manual’s suggestion that we include what is becoming increasingly useful information. If it has clear use-value in many cases, why wouldn’t we want it? Time for class, more later.

  5. Anders Fagerjord Says:

    Well, for my PhD thesis, I analysed some 60 Web sites. (I’ve put the list online.) Many of them were changed during the four years of writing, even those made by respectable, durable institutions like Yahoo!. I still get surprises that some of the stuff I looked at is gone now.

    Adding access dates is a way of making my work a little more long-lasting. And for a future reader, adding the date may help them locating it in the Internet Archive and other places. Heck, it even helps me locate it in my CD-ROMs with screenshots (the only safe way of documentation I have found).

    More funny is when I make comments on constantly updated pages, like Apple’s homepage. But these will also change dramatically in time, so, again, I think the access date is wise to include.

  6. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Since mutability is a major characteristic of online text — regardless of whether a particular author chooses to change a text — I’m in favor of including the access date. To Scott’s 500-plus-word “quick note” I write “ditto.” At least, it was about 500 words when I last checked it at 1:04 PM on Wednesday, Sep. 25. :-)

    I’d also argue that it’s probably more work to keep checking every source to see whether they change than it is simply to assume that the text may change after the publication date.

    In the blogosphere a few weeks ago, a huge dust-up took place over a game of textual hide and seek similar to the one Scott describes. Imagine that blogger A issues challenge A1. Blogger B replies with angry comment B1. Blogger A edits A1 to be innocent observation A1.1, thus making blogger B appear to be the aggressor.

    I wonder if this is part of the rationale behind the “fisk” — copying a chunk of someone else’s argument and interlineating your own (preferable hostile and disdainful) comments. If the target should change the text or take it down, the fisk actually gains rhetorial impact.

  7. Andy Says:

    An access date makes all the difference if a website shuts down or changes its contents. The date allows a researcher to (hopefully) contact the webmaster to ascertain that the material did in fact exist on the site on a particular date.

  8. nick Says:

    Interesting that others seem to be of the same different opinions that Scott and I am, for various reasons. So far, I’m not persuaded to change my thoughts on the matter.

    First, I don’t think any of us have suggested that access dates are always useless; the main difference of opinion seems to be whether they are always necessary in each bibliographic entry or whether shortly before the publication date of the your own article (perhaps this is a date that is explicitly noted at the beginning of your bibliography, when you checked the links) serves to be a good enough indicate of a last successful access date for some of your citations, with the exceptions getting an explicit access date.

    Second, I don’t at all buy the mutability argument the Dennis brings up, now that I’ve heard and read some of Matt’s discussion of the nature of digital materials. When I see a file modification date in a directory listing, which I can see when I access some electronic resources, that’s pretty good evidence that the file was modified on that date. Case in point: connecting by ftp to and going to /pub/FreeBSD/releases/386, I see

    250-Please read the file README.TXT

    250- it was last modified on Mon Mar 3 02:48:39 2003 – 206 days ago

    That’s much more specific information about the time of publication/modification than I have about any printed resource. Sure, I have to know what time zone the machine’s clock is set to to be precise; the clock could be wrong; and someone could have changed the modification date, but people can perpetrate such shenanigans with videocassettes or books as well. There are ways that scholars can date online documents.

    Yet the MLA-approved way of citing FTP resources says you have to include an access date in this case. Why? This can’t possibly have anything to do with determining when README.TXT was last modified, unless we have some reason to suspect that the file modification date was wrong. It could be an indication that the FTP site was up on that day, which might be nice, but then are we going to go through all the books we cite and check to make sure that they’re still in print, indicating that in our bibliography?

    Outrageously, the MLA-approved way of citing electronic resources also requries that you include access dates for email messages and USENET newsgroup posts. Oops! My saved, read-only email from four years ago sometimes just changes on my hard disk when I’m not looking. I’d better mention when I’m accessing it since it might have changed again.

    To those who advocate always including access date on each bibliographic entry: Why would it be useful (or more useful than the books-in-print check) in the case of this README.TXT? Why for email? When, exactly, has the inclusion of such a date in someone else’s bibliography truly made a difference in your own research? When did you find something in the Internet Archive that you wouldn’t have, if the bibliographer had just used a scheme like the one I describe above in which only some entries have their own access dates noted? When did you find an email or USENET post because of an access date?

  9. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Nick does a good job pointing out a flaw in my argument. Since an e-mail or a USENET posting has a date stamp, you’re really citing an event — a transaction that was launched when someone hit “send”. I agree that it makes no sense to expect such an archival text to change, and I’d agree that citing an access date in that case is silly — the date stamped by the e-mail or USENET system ought to be sufficient.

    Likewise, if you can refer to a version or release number provided by the author, citing that instead of the access date would make far more sense. But if I were to conduct a study of personal home pages, and chose a bunch at random, most of my primary sources wouldn’t have any kind of reliable record of what was changed when (that would apply to my own home page, too).

    Nick, I completely agree with you that the MLA’s system for citing electronic documents does not offer the full range of tools necessary to cover all (or even many) of the possibilities for cybertext research.

    I often scan academic articles simply looking for bibliographic references. If the “date of access” statement were at the beginning or end of a multiple-page Works Cited list, I wouldn’t necessarily see it if all I was doing was scanning the WC list looking for a particular text. Of course, I wouldn’t look for it now because it’s not a standard part of a WC list… maybe if it become standard, scholars would know to look for it, and it would be useful. But for now, scholars don’t expect to have to look outside the WC entry for bibliographical information.

    Occam’s Razor be dammed… how hard is it, really, to add the “cited on” date just before you send off your final draft? At the very least you’re telling your reader that you checked every link at the last possible minute.

    Of course, that leaves open the question of whether it’s my responsibility to keep checking those links and update them after my article has been published… I shudder at the thought of having to update my IF bibliography in perpetuity, though I will probably do it from time to time.

  10. Scott Rettberg Says:

    I agree that in the case of USENET postings and email messages, an access date is unnecessary. That is, there are very few scenarios (thought there are a few) in which the access date of clearly dated and more or less immutable materials would be any more useful than simply including the date of publication. But my position is that for the majority of materials published on the web, that date is useful information. I don’t disagree that when mutability isn’t a serious concern, there’s no need to include the access date, but I think, in agreement, with Dennis, that there should be a clear standard for websites. If you put the access date at the top of your bib, and someone else puts it in the bottom, and someone else doesn’t include it at all, or someone else choses some elegant way of including it in the preface, that introduces a lot of room for error, future ass-pains for other bibliographers. So write the MLA about email messages and USENET posts if you want — but don’t reinvent the wheel if the wheel works for mutable materials. Ultimately, the bibliographic information should serve to help your readers find the material you cite, as you cited it. The less idiosyncratic the process of doing that is, the better for all of us.

  11. vika Says:

    Seems like the brouhaha is dying down, but as a data point: I’ve used cited access dates to search for changed information in the Wayback Machine.

  12. Jill Says:

    And then there’s the question of how to cite a blog or a blog entry. Thomas Burg at Randgänge has some suggestions. In the comments to his post there are some concrete examples, including:

    Burkowitz, J. Gesundheitspolitisches Minenfeld (Weblog). Wortkontor 2003 Sep 21. Available from:

    This is, apparently, “adapted Vancouver” style, which I’m not familiar with, but anyway, the first title is the blog post, while Wortkontor refers to the blog’s title. This is more or less how I cited blogs in my PhD thesis, too, though I’ve got to say, it easily gets weird, for instance in a pseudonymous blog:

    Lt. Smash. Lt Smash. Weblog. 2003.

    There really isn’t much information there, is there.

    I like putting what the source actually is in the reference, but I’m not sure the styles really insist on this. Citing a post in a single-author blog, where the author’s known is OK, though:

    Frasca, Gonzlo. “Simulating Terror.” Weblog entry. 20 September 2001.

    I only gave the top URL for the blog, because archive URLs change. And after this discussion, yes, I probably should have had the “accessed” date on them too…

    But it gets really messy if you try and think about how to deal with a post in this blog, for instance, which has several authors. So the team of authors (“drivers”) are the editors, perhaps, and the person posting is the author?

    Montfort, Nick. 2003. “Bibliographic Brouhaha” in Mateas, Montfort, Rettberg, Stern and Wardrip-Fruin (eds) Grand Text Auto. Weblog. Cited September 2003.

    I’m sure I’m confusing my styles here, I’ve mostly used sort of MLA myself with moderations to manage online sources better, but I’m trying to teach my students Chicago which is really confusing me, but I have to go. This citation is missing the date of posting, that needs to go somewhere?


  13. Rae Says:

    Even the New Yorker has an opinion about this

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