E-Books' Varied Formats Make Citations a Mess for Scholars

Kindle, Nook, and other devices put the same text on different pages

The Amazon Kindle relies on "location numbers" for sections of text, and they are specific to particular editions of a book. The Barnes & Noble Nook comes close to maintaining page numbers. Its numbers correspond to a particular section of a text as defined by a publisher, and are, at times, consistent with the print edition. Still, several "turns" of a virtual page will often display the same page number.
February 06, 2011

As e-reading devices gain popu­larity, professors and students are struggling to adapt them to an academic fun­damental: proper citations, which other scholars can use.

The trouble is that in electronic formats, there are no fixed pages. The Kindle, developed by Amazon, does away with page numbers entirely. Along with other e-book readers, the Kindle allows users to change font style and size, so the number of words on a screen can vary. Instead of pages, it uses "location numbers" that relate to a specific part of a book.

Other devices, like the Sony Reader, which reflows text based on font size and model of device, have different methods, so the same passage might have a different identifier. Things get more confusing when readers come in various screen sizes.

The inability to find passages limits scholarly research, academics complain, because they depend on citations not only to track down and analyze text, but also as a testament to the accuracy of their own work. "The lack of page numbers is disconcerting," says Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association.

To provide guidance for the e-book world, the three major keepers of academic-citation style—the Modern Language Association's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, the American Psychological Association, and the University of Chicago Press, publisher of The Chicago Manual of Style—have taken steps to answer the question of how to cite e-books. But many scholars are unaware of such guidelines, or find the new citation styles awkward.

The MLA suggests treating all e-books in the same way as a digital file (like a Micro­soft Word document posted online) when listed in a bibliography. That means simply adding the kind of digital file used to the end of the traditional citation. To indicate where the snippet comes from within the file, the MLA recommends using section and paragraph numbers, if available. That's the same way the handbook suggests handling any work that lacks page numbers.

Ms. Feal says the MLA is considering whether to "accommodate" location numbers on the Kindle.

The latest edition of the Chicago manual, released in 2010, suggests the use of section and paragraph numbers, along with section titles, if page numbers are not available. Another alternative: listing the chapter name or heading over a section of text, or even writing a short, searchable string of text in the citation to help users find it.

"In desperation, you could say, 'Near the reference to "fuzzy rabbits,"' or something that would maybe be unique in the book," suggests Carol F. Saller, senior manuscript editor and assistant managing editor of the books division at the Chi­cago Press. "I wouldn't recommend that as a first tactic."

The Chicago manual also suggests including the format or edition of an e-book when listing it on a reference list.

For example, according to the manual's Web site, a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice accessed on a Kindle might be cited as: "Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007), Kindle edition."

New Technology, New Rules

The keepers of official citation style can find it tough to decide which new technologies need special rules.

The staying power of a new digital-book platform or online service is unpredictable, Ms. Saller says, so the Chicago editors struggle with whether to craft guidelines for specific systems. When they started drafting the latest edition of their style manual, three years ago, they decided not to include Twitter-specific citation rules, because they were not sure if the medium would survive. Since then they have received numerous questions, mostly from high-school and college students, about how to cite tweets.

Many scholars remain unaware that major guidebooks have added rules for e-books at all. "I don't think people have absorbed the fact that we have addressed the issue," says Ms. Saller.

The American Psychology Association's guidebook, like Chicago's, suggests listing section and paragraph numbers or section titles when quoting e-books that lack page numbers.

"It is a little unwieldy, but it's the best option we have been able to come up with that transfers across platforms to get the reader back to the source the writer used," says Jeff Hume-Pratuch, an editorial supervisor at the APA.

Scholars who are familiar with such citations agree that the current formats remain unwieldy. Some aca­demics improvise to help alleviate that burden.

Joseph Reagle, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, has worked with e-books in researching the Internet communities he writes about.

"I struggled with it a lot as I was doing the scholarship myself and thought, 'I don't want to put anyone else through this,'" he says.

When Mr. Reagle published Good Faith Collaboration online, he numbered the sections and paragraphs of each chapter to help anyone who wanted to cite the digital text.

Catching On at Colleges

While those numbers may be effective landmarks, some fear that they may start to intrude on the text. "What I don't want is something that so gums up the whole text that I can't pay attention to the text anymore," says William Rankin, director of educational innovation and an associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University, which is experimenting with e-books in some courses.

"What I want is something that lets me find something when I need to but also gets out of the way and lets me read."

Roberto Tietzmann, a professor of film at the Pontifical Catho­lic University of Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil, cites Kindle books by inserting an "l," for location number, where the "p" of the page number usually is found, and using footnotes to explain what the "l" stands for.

He uses e-books often, he says, because Brazilian publishers typically "release e-books more quickly than paper books." It is also easier to access an e-book than to wait for a paper version to arrive from the United States or elsewhere, he adds.

"E-books are under debate, and meanwhile these rules are not stabilized—I adapted them out of common sense and previous rules," he says via e-mail.

Discussions of how to cite e-books, which have been heating up on some academic e-mail lists and in faculty lounges, appear to be evidence that the format is catching on at colleges.

"I think digital books will be the main kinds of books teachers and students will be using," says Mr. Rankin, predicting that in about five years, there will be firm rules for citing e-books.

He looks forward to a time when most reading is done digitally, and electronic links replace long descriptions of how to find each reference.

"Citations have always been symbolic," Mr. Rankin says. "I don't think I need symbolic anymore. I want an actual link."