Why There Are Different Citation Styles

Why There Are Different Citation Styles

Ishani Debroy

I rather enjoy manually writing citations; despite the ease of using citation software, I find the manual process calming and meditative (and perhaps empowering with the greater sense of control it affords) in the midst of putting a paper together. Despite this, I’ll be the first to admit that using different citation or writing styles across papers is both time-consuming and tedious; but, it is often necessary. Whether you’re a scholar looking to be published, a student submitting a thesis, or an editor proofreading academic material, citation styles are determined by the place of publication or university. If you’re submitting a paper to multiple journals, chances are that you will have to tailor your paper to their preferred styles. These changes can be as minute as substituting commas for periods or as large as adding or removing information. You’ve probably asked yourself, as I have: why do we need so many different styles of citation? Do they have a larger function or is writing in different styles merely a time-consuming academic tradition?

These questions require us to backtrack slightly and understand why citations are so important in the first place. They fulfil three purposes: to give credit, to validate claims, and to inform. First, citations help us avoid plagiarising others’ ideas and findings by giving credit where it is due. Second, they legitimise a study; research often draws upon claims made by other studies. Citations validate these claims and situate the study within an ongoing discussion. These two functions can, of course, be fulfilled by any standard form of citation. Third, citations provide the reader with the source of the information, thus allowing them to further their own research or readings. This is crucial to our question about different styles: who are we informing about the sources and how are we doing so?

By compiling answers found on the internet, and from my own writing and editing experiences, here are a few thoughts on why different citation styles exist:

Discipline or Field

The most straightforward reason for the existence of various citation styles is that different disciplines or fields have varied requirements. Major citation styles are linked to certain disciplines due to the nature of the sources that they commonly use; for example, the APA (American Psychological Association) style is commonly used in the social sciences since it suits quantitative studies, while the MLA (Modern Language Association) style is preferred in the humanities since it is a good fit for literary and archival sources.

Another distinction is made on the importance of the information in the reference. While most citations carry the same basic information (name of the author, title of the work, and date of publication), the order in which they are listed often differs. This is based on what is considered the most important or relevant information in a discipline. In the APA style, the date immediately follows the name of the author in the reference list; this is because in the social sciences and in fields like education and engineering, the date of publication is important in determining the relevance of a study. In contrast, humanities scholars often use historical analyses, which is why authorship is salient; in the MLA style, the name of the author and the title of the publication are mentioned first in the reference section entries. Another comparison can be made between the two styles within the CMS (Chicago Manual of Style); the notes and bibliography style provides the entire title of the text in the footnotes while the author-date style only mentions the author’s last name and date of publication.

We might extend this logic to readers as well; our preference for a style may be influenced by the kind of information we seek out. I personally find the CMS notes and bibliography style most informative, perhaps because I am often curious about the title of the referenced text and like having access to it while reading the paper, instead of having to check the references section at the end. This might reflect my penchant for literary texts and the humanities over quantitative studies, as well as a preference for text that is free of parentheses. On that note, we might consider the aesthetic variations between styles as an important factor that determines why a particular style is preferred. While I find the notes and bibliography style the most aesthetically pleasing, bulky footnote sections can often hinder the flow of reading, making the author-date style preferable in many cases.

Identity Marker

Extending the link between disciplines and citation styles, we may infer that styles assert certain identities. Research scholars within a discipline or field are likely to use the same citation style, as if they are speaking a common language. As this highly informative blog argues, using a common citation style signifies that the author belongs to a specific community of academics; this is particularly evident in many universities in the UK that have in-house referencing systems that students are expected to strictly adhere to. It is not uncommon for major journals and universities to reject papers and submissions that do not adhere to their in-house style; adopting their trademark style is an initiation of sorts. Many journals and publications use a combination of a unique layout and citation style to create a brand or corporate identity that is easily recognisable.

In some situations, for a writer to adhere to a signature style is both costly and restrictive. We might ask, then, if creating a unique citation style has real value or simply functions as a vanity project with an added sense of exclusivity. Personally, I find that journals and publications that borrow heavily from established citation styles and make just a few stylistic changes are able to create a unique identity without overburdening the writer.


One’s preference for the best-known citation styles may be shaped by the tradition that they come with. For instance, the origins of the CMS may be traced back to as far as 1906 and The American Economic Review, with its in-house citation style changing over the years, to 1911. Further, the use of styles such as APA and AAA (American Anthropology Association) serves as a reverential nod to the history and contributions of these institutions within their respective fields. However, the history of citation styles in academia indicates that over time, most styles have been modified to overlap more closely. Now, they can be broadly categorised as: an author-date system, a footnote citation system, or a numerical system. In recent years, there seems to have been a trend towards the author–date rather than the footnote system (much to my dismay), which indicates a number of things about the present research culture and practice; for instance, a preference for concise data and quantitative studies and an increased emphasis on the year of publication. Thus, while tradition remains prevalent within citation styles, it is not uncommon for well-established styles to be modified and moulded to suit the current research climate and preferences.

Overall, citation styles exist to give research across time and place a uniform structure. Simultaneously, the variety of styles points to the diversity within research culture. As discussed, style variations correlate with differences in methodology, source material, subject matter, aesthetic presentation, and tradition. It would be interesting and relevant for academics and publishers to introspect on whether their preferred styles do, in fact, reflect the needs of their research and discipline.