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Monday, June 17, 2024

Oh, those irritating citations! Might blockchains help?


I’ve recently been head down over the keyboard filling in the endnotes and other citations for my upcoming historical work, The Liberation of Strasbourg. It’s my first brush in forever with academic citation, and I’m not relishing the experience.

Aren’t those citation requirements a headache? Could blockchains rescue us?

Honestly, the pain isn’t just from the tedious task of creating citations; I’m always writing something, after all. Rather, citations come with their own big irritant. Writers, academics and other citation-sufferers are huffing and puffing to keep up with ever-changing technology and media.

Take books, for instance. Yes, they’re a common reference, and many are now in ebook format. Some ebooks have page numbers, but not all. Sometimes, these numbers shift with different formatting settings. So what’s the point of a page number when you can just search the entire text?

And then you have documents. So many original documents are just a click away online, complete with photos. These should definitely hold more weight than any secondary quotes or reproductions, unless it’s a direct print of the photo. These documents are searchable, too. If I reveal the original URL and when I checked it, isn’t that enough? But websites can go offline. The link might disappear, but the document’s authenticity doesn’t. Maybe it’s better to just mention the document’s title and date, and skip the URL. Let curious readers do their own search.

Videos are a similar story. A link might die, or copies might vanish for various reasons, but the content—like an eyewitness account—remains credible. Should its credibility diminish if the link does? And that’s just for the older types of media. How about new platforms like TikTok, where so much current reporting happens on so many topics? How do you cite something that might not even be around in a few years?

I’m all for citing sources; that’s not the issue. It’s the outdated methods I’m questioning. The most practical approach now seems to be simply listing the creator, title, date, and medium. Everything else can be found online. This method better survives the dizzying changes in media.

And as for plagiarism or verifying facts, traditional citations don’t really prevent those issues. Sure, you can check a citation to see if it’s accurate. But a plagiarist or someone misrepresenting facts won’t bother citing their dubious sources. And some might just misquote or hope no one double-checks their references.

Peer reviews should catch these issues, but not all works undergo such scrutiny. Many times, the point of citations seems to be more about sounding credible—appealing to authority rather than fact. It gives an impression of trustworthiness, as if a bunch of footnotes guarantees accuracy. There are even practices like coercive citation or chasing after high-impact factors, which The Chronicle of Higher Education calls “the number that’s devouring science.”

Maybe a blockchain-based system for citations could keep up with media’s rapid evolution. Blockchain involves a chain of references that can’t be altered without changing the whole chain. Could this work for media and citations too? Imagine if every media piece had a unique identifier like an NFT, and creating a citation was as easy as clicking a mouse. For those who still print, I bet there could be a simple software tool to handle that. Simply put, such an approach would be an improvement over the current system of Digital Object Identifiers. Expand it. Use blockchains to make it simpler both to create material and learn its exact origins.

While this idea might work, I think it’s best to keep things simple for now. After all, look at the snake pit I’m skirting.

Editor’s note: Readers of historical fiction might check out Paul’s novel Begin the Beguine, which the Historical Novel Society has just given a strong recommendation.

Image by Cottonbro via Pexels.



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