Citation standard governance structures, for fun and profit.

(the bulk of this text is from a paper I wrote to support the work of the DCIP. I’m sharing it here in case anyone else finds it useful. All glaring issues and inaccuracies are my fault alone, please leave a note and I will update.)

Briefly, a citation is an in-text link to a reference in a list of references at end of a work. Though there are some systems that focus on citations (Harvard, Vancouver…) or references (ANSI/NISO, ISO/BS) only, within commonly used systems it is more usual to see a coverage of both aspects alongside more general “style guide” material.

Many styles were developed around the requirements of particular publishers or journals, but have since expanded into widely used guidance. Some have been heavily commercialised, others are available to view online for free. There’s an argument to be made about open accessibility to what are, in essence, gateways to academic publishing – but here my focus is on openness in the sense of transparency. How, and why, are changes made to citation/referencing rules?

The bulk of this post is in the form of a list of citation/reference styles, alongside an indication of where they are currently used and the way they are administered. You’ll see (broadly) four categories of style administration:

  • Developed on behalf of a publisher or professional body by a specifically hired external author/editor.
  • Developed on behalf of a professional body or publisher(s) by a committee or other individual/group drawn from that body.
  • Developed by a standards organisation.
  • Unmaintained/consensus.

In the short term, if you wanted to improve or modify mainstream citation practice you would go via the two major standards organisations. Both – it could be argued – are overdue updates, and the mechanisms by which such an approach could be made are transparent and clearly defined. Both NISO/ANSI and ISO/BS standards are likely to be relied on in the refinement of subject area and, at a secondary level, journal-specific level. This would not be a speedy process, but with concerted lobbying it may be possible to achieve a wide coverage for any changes in around five years.

However, there are two major obstacles to overcome. The first would be the near-impossibility of seeing complete coverage. Whilst the convergence of requirements towards a small set of standards has been an ongoing trend, there are many journals that – for unique reasons of specialism, or through sheer obstinacy – will continue to mandate specific presentational methods. These may include, but are not limited to, modifications of mainstream standards, previous versions of mainstream standards, or entirely distinct and unique methods. Short of contacting each “outlier” journal directly there would be no means of achieving complete coverage.
The second major obstacle concerns the likely development of research metrics over the next ten years. James Wilsdon’s “The Metric Tide” is simply the most prominent example of a trend away from an uncritical acceptance of citation-count based metrics – newer methods of analysis, such as semantometrics, examine contextual information gleaned from the position and sentiment of a citation. Citation (as opposed to reference) practice is primarily based on academic custom – changing ingrained habits could be very difficult indeed, and journals would likely be reluctant to depart existing norms even if the “canonical” documentation of these norms was altered.

Those citation/reference methods in full

International Standards – these primarily deal with references, and may either be used directly by journals or inform the ongoing development of other style guides. As the projects of international standards organisations, these are openly constituted committees which are explicitly open to question and suggestion via well documented routes.

  • ANSI/NISO Z39.29 (last updated 2005) and covers bibliographic references. This standard underlies other styles and is also used directly by PubMed/Medline. Note that JATS (another NISO standard) supports the XML markup of references in a number of styles. The standard is managed by committee/working group and suggestions  are welcome via standard NISO contact details (
  • ISO/BS 690:2010 (last updated 2010) is titled “Information and documentation – Guidelines for bibliographic references and citations to information resources”. In the UK it is sometimes cited as, “Harvard British Standard”. The standard is managed by the ISO Identification and Description Committee (ISO/TC 46/SC) which can be contacted easily via the details on that page. ANSI provide secretariat, and confusingly the named secretary (Todd Carpenter) works for NISO.

Citation styles – these could best be described as “conventions” rather than standards, though many have spawned wider style guides. In these latter cases, an invited editor will draw on other style guides in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible without being needlessly complex. The post by RD Harper on the “Chicago” process is instructive here on methods – note that “Chicago” and “Turabian” are aimed, as complete style guides, primarily at students. The “Vancouver” method is another outlier in that it has a close association with the ICMJE, with the maintenance of a committee alongside an invited author and strong links to the NCBI style guide.

  • Chicago – the Chicago Manual of Style is based on what is widely accepted as the “Chicago” method of citation (primarily author/date within parenthesis, but there is also a footnote variant.) The 16th edition of the manual (published in 2010) is managed by the University of Chicago Press is aimed at general/student use. Russell David Harper was the invited editor, and offers an interesting perspective of the process of developing a style guide.
  • Turabian  – A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations is a variation on the Chicago style [Author/date, and footnote]. The 8th Edition (published 2013) is also aimed at a  general/student audience. It corresponds to the 16th ed of the Chicago Manual of Style, and each edition is managed by an invited editor. Originally developed by Kate Turabian, a former graduate school dissertation secretary at the University of Chicago, more recent editions have been managed by a range of editors and the 8th edition was updated by the “University of Chicago Press editorial staff”.
  • Oxford The New Oxford Style Manual (sometimes referred to as the new “Hart’s Rules”) is known for a footnote/endnote citaton style, though the manual also covers references.  The current edition is the 3rd, which was published in 2016 and incorporates the 2014 version of “Harts Rules”. Anne Waddingham was editor in chief of the 2014 edition of Hart’s Rules, she is currently a freelance editorial consultant.
  • Harvard citation is a surname-and-date-in-parenthesis method that refers to a common practice rather than a given publication. There is no central authority and “Harvard” does not constitute a full style guide. There is some doubt as to its origin (though an 1881 paper by Edward Laurens Mark is often given as the source) , but it is not owned, and indeed is explicitly disowned, by Harvard University. This BMJ article offers a partial history of the practice.
  • Vancouver is closely associated with the work of the ICMJE, with their “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals” often given as an authority. It is an ordinal number parenthetical citation method. It links to the confusingly-titled NCBI publication Citing Medicine for referencing practice. The recommendations were updated in 2015, and are managed by an ICMJE sub-committee, with the standard ICMJE email address given as a point of contact. “Citing Medicine” complies with NISO Z39.29 and names Karen Patrias as the (invited) lead author of the 2007 second edition.

Legal citation very much exists within a separate world, and two common examples are included here for completeness only. The OSCLA, with an invited author and a clear mechanism for feedback, contrasts with the very commercial and closed auspices of the Bluebook.

  • OSCLA (the “Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities“) is the main UK standard for legal citation. The current edition is the fourth (2012) and the guide is updated “every two-to-three years”. It is managed by an invited editorial team, and invites feedback via oscola@
  • Bluebook – “The Bluebook: A uniform system of citation” is the major US legal citation and reference guide, and has been developed on a commercial basis by four major US legal journals. The most recent edition (the 20th) was produced in 2008. Concerns about cost and access have led to the independent, openly accessible, Indigo Book which offers a compatible style guide.

Major subject area guides – the APA and the MLA are two of the most widely used citation and referencing standards, used respectively across the majority of social sciences and arts/humanities subjects. These are style guides in the fullest extent, covering every aspect of academic writing marginalia. The development of style guides is undertaken within the committee or secretariat structure of the society in question.

Other subject area style guides – generally much sparser than the “big two”, these are generally developed as a function of journal publication, and have more in common with guidance for submission. It can be difficult to find details of authorship, though the AMA and ACS (as the two largest in this category) are clearer about processes. At the other end, we are dealing with what are basically journal-specific guidance notes, and at this level it may be easier to encourage journals to adopt a standardised system where possible.

  • IEEE – The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ “Editorial Style Manual“, and parallel “Citation Reference” are widely used in engineering disciplines. These appear to have been last updated in September 2009 by Deborah Graffox, who – at the time – worked for the IEEE press.
  • APS – the American Physics Society “Online Style Manual” is undated and appears unmaintained, though mentions a previous edition in 2003. It is very difficult to see who was responsible for developing it, I would suspect the APS journals team but the guide is not mentioned in their advice for authors, which instead points to two contradictory journal specific guides that do not refer to the online style manual.
  • AMA – The AMA Manual of Style reached a 10th Edition in 2007. AMA is widely used in medical research. It operates an email address for feedback ( and is developed by an AMA authorial committee.
  • ACS – “The American Chemistry Society Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information” was last updated in 2006 (the 3rd edition) It was developed at the time by two invited co-authors: Anne M. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson.

There are many other citation/reference style guides (I’ve heard numbers in excess of 2,000 bandied about) at subject, publisher and journal level. But these are the main offenders.

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