I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma

What you are about to read might be considered by some to be heretical. Read at your own risk πŸ™‚

Yesterday, I was following the stream of Tweets from the RootsTech conference. (Not able to be there in person, following on Twitter and watching some of the live-streamed presentations was the next best thing.) During one of the sessions, a person on Twitter commented that there were people who thought traditional (read “scholarly”) source citations were too hard and cumbersome. They wanted to enter one line and be done. A short discussion followed on Twitter about why this is and don’t people want to have good research.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider the two purposes of a source citation:

  1. To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported.
  2. To aid the researcher and others in evaluating that source.

To those ends, I say: I don’t care where you put the comma. Just tell me where you got the information.

Source citations are a matter of style. Some people confuse the Chicago Manual of Style as being a guide to grammer. It is not. It is an elaborate style sheet for consistency of source citations and other publishing matters. It served me very well in my undergraduate career as a history major. Now that I am in grad school studying library science,Β CMSΒ does me no good, as the library field prefers the style of the American Psychological Association (APA style). Let’s compare a bibliography entry for a journal article in CMS and APA. (Note: in both instances, all lines after the first line should be intended; I’m not seeing a way to format it that way here.)

Chicago Manual of Style:
Karl, Katherine A., Joy V. Peluchette, and Leda M. Hall. “Give Them Something to Smile About: A Marketing Strategy for Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers.”Β Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing 20 (2008): 71-96.

Karl, K. A., Peluchette, J. V., & Hall, L. M. (2008). Give them something to smile about: a marketing strategy for recruiting and retaining volunteers. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 20, 71-96.

Both give the same basic information; the only real difference is format. The APA citation doesn’t give the authors’ first names, but I still have enough information that I can find the article.

Keeping the two main purposes of a source citation in mind, what do we need for a useful, meaningful citation? It needs to have the information necessary for the researcher or anyone else to find and evaluate that source. These items include:

  • Author(s)
  • Title
  • Publication info, if applicable (publisher, year of publication, journal title, etc.)
  • Page number
  • Repository (if it is a manuscript or original record)

Does having the author’s surname come first help me find the article? No. Does having the article title come before the journal title help me find the article? No. Does having a comma after the second author and before the “and” or ampersand help me find the article? No. Does using the word “and” instead of an ampersand help me find the article? No.

What does help me find the article is having the names of the authors, the article title, the journal title, and the issue. (The page numbers are nice, but once I found that particular issue, I could probably find the article.)

I believe that we as genealogical professionals are being counterproductive when we push so hard for what we call a “good” citation. Let’s not forget that for most people, genealogy is a hobby — a serious hobby, but it’s still supposed to be enjoyable. Scholarly source citations probably brings back nightmares of late-night term paper writing in high school and college.

Wouldn’t the field be better off if instead of harping on “good” citations — what you italicize, what you put in quotation marks, where you put the comma — we focus our efforts on getting researchers simply to have source citations? Wouldn’t we be better off if someone had “Graham’s History of Fairfield and Perry Counties, Ohio, (pub. 1883), page 452” instead of nothing? That citation is far from perfect — it’s missing some key publishing information and doesn’t follow any established style — but I maintain that it is much better than nothing.

Obviously, if someone is submitting an article to a journal, he or she will need to follow the style sheet used by that journal. If someone is wanting to publish a family history, using an established style sheet helps to give the publication a sense of authority. (Plus it’s easier to read when things are consistent.)

I am not saying that genealogists shouldn’t cite their sources if they are not going to publish. Quite the contrary. I believe that source citations are imperative to good research. Source citations allow the researcher to review what he or she has and to identify holes in the research. What I am saying is that we sometimes put too much emphasis on the format and not on the content.

Let’s take the pressure off. Let’s encourage people to have the elements of a meaningful, useful source citation. Let’s stop harping on the format. If the elements are there, we can put the commas in later.

Posted: February 11, 2011.

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  • I’m with ya! I’d just like to know where the info comes from, and I could care less what the order of words is. I get so hung up on trying to do my own citations “right” that have the time I give up for a later date when I have more time to be confused…

  • I love this article (and yes, I WOULD marry it πŸ˜‰ I’m going to print it out to hang on my wall. I’ll admit that sometimes the thought of trying to get a “correct” citation has moved me to scrawling something on a piece of paper to do later…and unfortunately sometime later becomes never. The funny thing is that I have no trouble with citations for papers on non-genealogy topics but adding citations to my database almost scares me sometimes. Thanks so much for giving me a much needed sanity check on the whole issue.

    • >>I love this article (and yes, I WOULD marry it

      Diana — Thanks, but I think this article is already spoken for. πŸ˜‰

  • Hear Hear. I’ve long held this view – as long as the source tells where it came from and allows someone else to easily find the same information it doesn’t matter what order the words/phrases are in, and whether they’re UPPER CASE or italicised and where the colons, commas and semi-colons are.

    Particularly with the recent advent of Evidence Explained, the ensuing demand on software developers to have their software produce an exactly “compliant” source, and the angst from users if it doesn’t, isn’t really helping anybody.

    I compare this at least in some ways to the people who post to the TNG users mail list and/or forum complaining that they’ve spent hours trying to decipher the PHP and CSS files that make up that software trying to tweak it so that the site looks “just so” – all the while they’re not actually getting any genealogy done.

    Don’t lose sight of the forest for the matchsticks!!!


  • I have called this, “Sourcing in the Real World”. I have called it that for years. I even did a presentation on just that title several years ago. My point was, source it so you can find it again, and so others can as well.

    Thank you for putting this out here. Well stated!

  • Right on! Thanks for putting this out “there”. Trying to figure out the “corect” way to cite can be stressful and does lead to procrastination of citing, which can lead to forgetting which is not good. And, I must admit that it makes me feel like a school kid wondering if I am going to get a good grade or not.

    I say – as long as the pertinent information is there, call it good. πŸ™‚

  • Agree, Amy!

    If the women don’t find you handsome… they should at least find you handy

    – Red Green –

    That is also my philosophy with regard to citations. While they may not be handsome (technically correct), your citation should be handy (sufficient information to find the source). You may have missed a comma, capitalized something that shouldn’t be, or have things out of place, but we should be able to find that source.

    I wrote about this last November and stand by it.

    There are no Citation Police. You are only hurting yourself or others who might find your information useful, if you are sloppy. I do suggest annotating sources. It is tremendously helpful.

    All bets are off if this is a scholarly article. Then, you must write like a scholar.


    • fM — That’s exactly my point. If it’s a scholarly article, you *must* follow the style used by that journal. Otherwise, concentrate on getting the elements you need, not on how to format it.

  • I know that assumptions are BAD, but let’s do some exploring and see if we agree:

    1. Family Historians/Genealogists think citing sources is important.
    2. They also think that citing sources is difficult and time consuming.
    3. Many sources are available online with billions more coming.

    Why don’t we insist, encourage, beg, speak up, etc. and push the burden of “good” citations for online sources to the companies that provide the online sources?

    Anyone else agree?

  • I have always recorded sources and while many of them aren’t pretty they will get me back to where I found the information. I do not provide sources on my blog for two reasons; 1) I don’t want to be criticized for my far from perfect citations and 2) Feeling the need to create pretty citations takes me so long I would write even less than I do now. Thanks for a great post!

  • Agreed. As a long-time student in different subject areas I learned many different methods of citation. I can cite with the best of them if I have to, but I don’t necessarily enjoy it! As a librarian, I don’t care what a citation looks like so long as I can easily source the correct item. As a genealogist, I mostly apply my librarian side. As long as I – or someone else – can find what I’m citing, it’s all good. Should I ever write something for publication, I know I can cite it up ‘properly’ but I’d rather do the research than make pretty the rest of the time.

  • Great post, Amy! If people are too overwhelmed by doing it the right way, they won’t do it at all. As long as I can find it again and as long as someone else looking at my research can find it, who cares what it looks like. Just make sure it’s there.

  • LOVED this article, Amy! Very well done! I’ve also been thinking the same thing! I try to put as much as I can in my source – so if I do publish something for my family or others researching same people, they can find it – I also want to make sure I can find it again! Thanks for saying what it seems like we’ve all been thinking!

  • I so agree! I’m a librarian and genealogist too and do not obsess with my citations. I use EasyBib or Worldcat most often and let it go with that. I will probably never adhere to the more rigorous methods – it takes away from my research time. πŸ™‚

  • Another AMEN. I couldn’t agree more. I’m also hoping Mark Tucker’s idea gets some traction, because that would mean we wouldn’t have to debate this anymore.

    As a side note, I was following your tweets during the conference, and it took me a while to realize that you weren’t there. It’s amazing that we have technology that allows us to be at the same conference, having a conversation, without being in the same state.

  • Amy — Is this really a problem? I would appreciate seeing some links to, or at least specific examples of, people who are routinely bashing one another for having a comma in the wrong place. In my experience they are few, and there are still way more folks who don’t record all the elements, or don’t understand the source well enough to know for sure what they are. — Harold

    • Harold — Having a major project deadline looming tomorrow morning, I don’t have time to go hunting down specific examples. But I have witnessed this behavior in person and online (usually on a genealogy mail list). In one instance, the person trying to write the citation had *all* of the elements, but his particular genealogy software didn’t want to italicize something. The way that the “expert” responded was absolutely demoralizing. I’ve seen it happen too often to ignore.

      I agree with you that there is a segment of the genealogy world that either does not see the importance of citations at all and another segment that just doesn’t quite grasp what a good one contains. My point is let’s get everyone to the point where they want to cite and they want to have all the elements, then we can work on formatting.

      • Amy — Thanks, deadline here too. Don’t think we disagree much. I totally agree that there is no place for a demoralizing reply, regardless of the subject being discussed. I may just be more sensitive to what I see as the primary problem — lack of interest in and knowledge of citations — rather than the overreaction to it which you describe. But there is no way we will get “everyone” to any point and then be able to start doing something else — we’ll just have to deal with both extremes from here to eternity! — Harold

  • What a refreshing post to read. I have also seen this (citation sneering) happen on a regular basis and in fact recently had a conversation with another genealogist about this. I spent MANY, MANY hours getting all the commas right (and had the help of a professional editor- and I’m sure they’re still not all perfect) on my book, The Journey Takers, – and yet felt paranoid that people would be emailing me to tell me I had put the wrong thing in parenthesis on page 297. I agree with Harold also though that I do also see many people on the other side – people who don’t cite at all. I think this is challenging because genealogy is a field with a minority of professionals and a lot of hobbyists, as Amy pointed out. We want to help people raise their research without scaring them away from genealogy research. I think it’s a fine balance.

  • What you are dealing with here are three levels of researcher, I think.

    First are those who don’t cite sources at all. We can preach CITE, CITE, CITE to them all day until they get it. From what I can tell, this is the main audience who will benefit from your article.

    Second are those who understand the need to cite, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. This group will also benefit from your article as it may get them over the hump–the fear of “not getting it right”–that at times stifles their whole-hearted desire to properly cite their sources.

    The last group are those who understand the need to cite, but also understand the purpose of using a specific, consistent format. Those in this last group will disagree to some extent with your article.

    When I first started writing years ago, one of the most consistent pieces of advice I heard from other writers, read in writers magazines and books on writing, was “Just write. You can edit it later.” This is a good attitude to have toward source citation. However, merely having all of the elements is not the finished product of a source citation. You have to format them in a clear, consistent manner. Where you put a comma or a semi-colon is as important in a citation as it is in any other sentence. You may simply pour your thoughts out onto paper in the text of your family history, but you will be sure to hit the spell-check and fix grammar mistakes before too long. Why do source citations not deserve the same treatment?

    Furthermore, by using a consistent format, any readers–either intentional, such as writing for a journal or magazine, or unintentional, such as your own children or grandchildren who may come across your notes years from now–will be able to follow the citation. As a professional genealogist who has worked on hundreds of client projects, I have seen many “research reports” that the clients prepare to summarize their research. Many of these reports cite sources for all of their information. Unfortunately, they do not follow a consistent format, and in many cases, these citations take quite a bit of time to decipher in order to discover what source was actually used. In quite a few cases, the “citation” was so undecipherable as to almost defeat the purpose of including a citation: “To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported” and “To aid the researcher and others in evaluating that source.”

    If the elements of a citation do not follow a consistent format, how can anyone know for sure, for example, which element is which. For books and other published material, such as the examples you gave, it is fairly easy to decipher, but what about a specific item in a file that is part of a specific record group as part of a larger collection? Even if all of these elements are present, what order are they in? What punctuation separates the various elements, some of which may be rather complex and contain punctuation of their own?

    The other consideration, aside from later reading of the citation by yourself or others, is the process of writing the citation itself. If you *consistently* follow a specific format, then creating citations in this format becomes second nature. Then, you won’t have to run to your favorite citation guide to look up every new record group or record format to come up with exactly how to write this citation. It will become habit.

    Just my nickel (a little too long to be $0.02)

  • Well said, Amy! I absolutely agree with everything you say here. I learned a lot from listening to others at RootsTech, and since I primarily deal with beginners online this is a familiar chorus. One of the grey areas is what is considered “for publication.” When individuals put their family trees on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch is that not publishing? In that case I don’t think the “1880 census” they have in their files is quite enough. Incomplete source citations (and I’m talking content here, not commas) are just not going to be enough for the next person who comes along and wants to evaluate a body of research. Which means a lot of the research may be redone over and over and over. I told the people I talked to at RootsTech who called EE a “doorstop” that what they really need to read and embrace is the first two chapters. The rest is just gravy if they have the time and inclination for it.

    But as you said, the onus here should be on the content providers – Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc. to find a way to make it easy. Ancestry has at least done this in part for the content on their own site for people who use FamilyTreeMaker or Ancestry Member Trees. But they should expand this to include other software programs as well. I hope eventually that all providers find a way to store a source citation with the digitized content in such a way that it will transfer with it to another website, a genealogy software program, etc. Jay Verkler definitely has this thought in mind for FamilySearch.

  • I saw a link to this post that wasn’t working. (here: http://networkedblogs.com/lW7KG) He had a list of twenty or so articles about citations. Your title was the only one that didn’t make me tired just reading it, so I googled the title and found your article.

    Thank you very much. ‘Just be sure someone else can find it.’ Great!

    I keep a lot of my information in text format in addition to a genealogy software program. I learned how to do citations and can do them properly when I try, but in text I can also add whatever other information I want, like “not found in such and such a record, etc.”

    • Thank you! I’m glad that you found my article to be helpful. (And I’m glad you took the extra step to Google the title to find it!)