• September 5, 2015

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

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

Not on the Same Page 1

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.

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close Not on the Same Page 1

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.

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."


1. christopher_m - February 07, 2011 at 08:57 pm

In a very unique example of how fast technology can change, 24-hours after publication this article is now partially obsolete.

Amazon.com just released the latest software update (3.1) for the newest generation Kindle. This software update adds page numbers. I just downloaded it and it works perfectly. According to my Kindle I'm on page 151 of the book I'm currently reading.

2. jdbeatty - February 08, 2011 at 09:08 am

...which may be true for the devices, but not the computer software...not yet...

3. gorillagorilla - February 08, 2011 at 10:34 am

Amazon Adds Real Page Numbers to Kindle

Wired.com > Gadget Lab > Tablets and E-Readers
By Charlie Sorrel Tuesday, February 8, 2011 8:24 AM


4. mgpiety - February 08, 2011 at 03:19 pm

Ebooks are definitely the wave of the future. I encouraged my students last term to buy their critical reasoning text as an ebook because I was assigned that course at the last minute, so I wasn't able to tell the students the text they would need until a couple of days before the first class. The experiment was a resounding success. The students liked the price and ease of use.

All ebook publishers are going to have to find a way, however, to make their books available as electronic loans, so people (including scholars and students) who need to check something in a book, but don't want to buy the book can do that.

The page number issue always seemed to me as if it could be easily solved by simply inserting the number of the page in the print edition in brackets immediately before the first word on that page. That way it would always be in the right location no matter how large or small the font. I don't know if that is what Kindle has done. I'm sure there are other ways of doing it that would also work well. The real issue with Ebooks, it seems to me, is making them available in the same way that conventional books are available, to people who want to use them for only a brief period. That also seems like a problem that is fairly easily solved, but I haven't heard any discussion of it yet.

5. ifrank - February 08, 2011 at 03:55 pm

Yes, Kindle plans to introduce page numbers corresponding to print editions of books. Nevertheless, all you citation style editors need to help us out with ebooks that may be "born digital" and may not have page numbers. About renting e-books: Things seem to be developing. University of Chicago Press already offers a option of "30-day ownership for $7.00" for their books available electronically. (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/aboutEbooks-popup.html) Also, remember to check with your library and see if they happen to have an electronic copy of the book you need.

6. hulibrary - February 08, 2011 at 05:23 pm

The University of Chicago Press, MLA, APA, are all missing the boat. Why don't they spend their time more wisely and come up with one simple, standard format that might serve all scholars with one simple way to cite something, or to refer to something cited. Every year we have to train undergraduates into an impossible diatribe on citation styles, only to amend, revise, revisit them each year when a new blooming edition is published. I guess the citation agencies must need the money!
Frank Edgcombe, Harvey Library Hampton University

7. sdnelson - February 09, 2011 at 03:23 am

So have people just forgotten about these things called "books" located in places called "libraries"? I hear there are a lot more of those than e-books. I also can't imagine any book of any importance being published only in an electronic edition.

This doesn't mean the MLA shouldn't be looking for a proper way to cite them. But I think professors and teachers should tell their students, "If you don't have to use an e-book for your paper, don't." It should be no different than telling students that it's better to use scholarly editions of texts, or that they should stick to peer-reviewed journals. It's a matter of professionalism.

8. stefanaries - February 09, 2011 at 06:42 am

At sdnelson: There are many of us who would vastly prefer to use hard copy books, but we live and work in parts of the world where such are hard to come by. If you are accustomed to the library resources available at a great research library (or for that matter even via ILL at your average liberal arts college) it can be difficult to understand that in large parts of the world--Africa, the Middle East and South Asia for example--such libraries simply do not exist. Scholars in these parts of the world, and increasingly students as well, depend more and more on electronic versions. Where I live in Abu Dhabi, a relatively affluent part of this vast swath of the world, books are extremely difficult to come by and often takes weeks or even months to obtain, even if you pay out of pocket for them.

Also, it is somewhat of a conceit to say that a preference for a paper book is "more professional" than an electronic version of the same work. It would make life easier if all of the major ebook readers included page references back to a specific paper edition, the way that Amazon has apparently just done with the Kindle--as a way to make formats as uniform as possible--but in the meantime looking too far down ones nose at scholars and students who simply don't have access to a first class research library comes across as petty.

9. flowney - February 09, 2011 at 07:43 am

MLA, APA and Chicago are not the right organizations to be addressing this issue. Rather, it is a task for the eBook standards maintainers. Thus, this is largely a job for the International Digital Publishing Forum which maintains the open EPUB standard and Amazon which maintains the closed .mobi format.

There is also an interesting initiative called "Open Bookmarks" (http://www.openbookmarks.org/) that may offer some useful approaches.

10. moldorf - February 09, 2011 at 07:50 am


"each year when a new blooming edition is published": MLA went six years between its last editions (2003/2009), APA went eight years (2001/2009), and CMS went seven years (2003/2010).

11. 11215378 - February 09, 2011 at 08:25 am

There is a free solution to mgpiety's proposition on renting e-books: libraries. E-book collections are growing. Our e-book collection is about the same size as our print collection thanks to the buying power of our consortium, OhioLINK, and allocation of our own acquisition funds based on use, which also almost equals the use of print books.

12. cwinton - February 09, 2011 at 09:46 am

A page number is just a location reference, whether explicity printed or not, and will vary from book edition to book edition; i.e., their use in citations is problematic unless you happen to have access to the edition cited. It seems pretty obvious to me that e-book publishers simply need to be encouraged to embed location references that may or may not correspond to a printed page number, and which can be made visual or not as the reader so desires. In truth, an e-book citation should be easier to rely on than a citation for a printed book, which is something the purveyors of devices like Kindle need to take care of. The MLA and others should not be trying to accommodate the current crop of devices/formats but rather should be pressuring the industry to adopt standards for putting location markers in e-copy.

13. ljbohman - February 09, 2011 at 09:48 am

I do not see the need for an alternative to page numbers. The role of a citation is to allow a scholar to find the cited passage. Having an e-resource makes this easier than a printed copy. The search function will lead you directly to the cited passage, whether it is on a Nook, Kindle, or iPhone. For a printed work you have to manually scan the page.

14. lyoncoll - February 09, 2011 at 09:59 am

@sdnelson: An ebook is simply an electronic version of a book. It doesn't contain inferior content. While I certainly prefer printed books, I understand that some people prefer electronic or can really only access electronic. As long as the content is the same the format shoudn't matter.

15. raghuvansh1 - February 09, 2011 at 10:12 am

My frank openion is E book is fad and could not sustain long time.because its durability is very limited. Scientist do their best to find out alternative to paper so publisher and printer print book magazine .traditional way.I agree paper is dangerous for climate but we can find out alternative to paper.

16. clawsonp - February 09, 2011 at 10:25 am

As a B&N nook user, familiar with the Kindle, platform-specific solutions are not a viable solution. The hardware will change and software will be updated. What is necessary is a standard for citation that covers the valid information. We don't need to know which device the student uses, which software updates they are operating under, or what day they accessed a particular article. What we do need to know, in a reflowable document, is the author, the title, the release date (analogous to a publication date), and the paragraph number.

Here's the challenge to hardware/software producers: the first one to satisfy our needs gets our business. Any platform or application that doesn't address our needs gets left behind.

17. andrew0261 - February 09, 2011 at 10:27 am

@raghuvanshi: I would not go so far as saying that e-books are a "fad," but their durability is indeed untested. The BOOK has been with us for over 500 years: we know that "technology" lasts! I have been using my Kindle for some time now, and have found extremely useful. I have often wondered about citing from those things, so thanks everyone for a very thoughtful article and string of comments!

18. edwardoneill - February 09, 2011 at 11:02 am

On the one hand, depending on the format, ebooks are often collections of (sometimes html-like) files. Therefore any given string of characters in an EPUB book, for instance, has an exact location in the tree-like structure of a particular file having a given name.

Should software designers become aware of this need, it would not be difficult to develop conventions for expressing such locations in short, citable formats--simpler, even than some ungainly url's.

On the other hand, as some commentators have astutely pointed out, the footnote is not the be-all and end-all. A thoughtful writer can graciously give her readers many cues for locating a given passage: e.g., "In the same chapter, shortly after the discussion of x," etc. This is doubly or trebly useful, as the writer thereby gives a lot more meaningful contextual information than "It's on page 26."

19. sand6432 - February 09, 2011 at 11:07 am

Scholars should follow the lead of Wittgenstein in his Tractatus, where everything is readily locatable by section and paragrah number: http://www.kfs.org/~jonathan/witt/tlph.html. A recent book that uses this system successfully is this: http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-03373-0.html.---Sandy Thatcher

20. johnlaudun - February 09, 2011 at 11:18 am

Everything old is new again. Reagle's numbering scheme is several hundred years old. Just now I stood up and reached for my copy of John Ruskin's "The Two Paths," printed in 1905. Its contents are a series of lectures, with roman numerals, each containing paragraphs preceded by arabic numerals.

Both Jerome McGann and Yung-Hsing Wu have noted that the bibliographic is not dead.

21. de_safran - February 09, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Stuhlman's Rule for citations

Citations must be reversable. What is cited should be able to found by another reader.

Everything else is commentary.

22. 22263662 - February 09, 2011 at 12:18 pm

@raghuvansh1: Are you refering to the "durability" of the ebook or the ereader? As a librarian, I think that books residing in thousands of libraries and private collections are less durable than ebooks residing on millions of devices and thousands of computers. It seems rather pessimistic to think that ALL technology will go away and/or fail. A publisher certainly doesn't rely on paper copies of its output, but rather stores it electronically. Ebooks (electronic documents) are here to stay, whether the current reading devices last or not. We have already found the alternative to paper.

23. de_safran - February 09, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Stuhlman's Rule for Citations

All citations must be reversable. That means a citation created by one writer must be searchable and found by another.

Everything else is commentary.

24. russhunt - February 09, 2011 at 12:57 pm

"Kindle edition" (Chicago) is stupid. It's not an edition. If Chicago is confusing this, God help my students . . .

We should cite by the traditional information (so that we'll know, for instance, what edition we're talking about), and search for unique strings to find the exact text.

25. g8briel - February 09, 2011 at 01:29 pm

I'll echo russhunt here. I think it would make the most sense to include quoted search strings. Since all ebooks can be searched full text a string of 5-7 words should take you to the place you are looking for. You wouldn't even have to add this to the sources cited list if you had already put a quote in the text.

26. amy_l - February 09, 2011 at 02:40 pm

As a previous commenter noted, page numbers have never been ideal because they change from edition to edition. They're basically arbitrary numbers with no relation to the textual content. What we need is a way to mark each individual paragraph; paragraphs are conceptual entities and shouldn't change unless the text itself is revised. I agree with the person who said they don't want the numbering system to get in the way of the text, but this is a place where electronic editions would have an advantage. There could be a way to switch the paragraph numbers on or off, so they're out of the way when you're reading, but you can switch them on to create a citation or look up a citation.

27. 22263662 - February 09, 2011 at 02:51 pm

I agree with Amy_l and clawsonp.

28. 22232967 - February 09, 2011 at 03:07 pm

How about something like the chapter and verse method used for the Bible?

29. ejb_123 - February 09, 2011 at 03:30 pm

I was just thinking of chapter and verse referneces like the Bible as well. (Though even this causes some difficulties, as Catholic chapter and verse numbers sometimes, especially in the case of the Psalms, do not match up with Protestant chapter and verse numbers.) Another similar alternative is the location numbers used for ancient Greek philosophical texts by Plato and Aristotle (I believe they are known as Stephanus and Bekker numbers). Finally, a third alternative would be the way one cites the tractates from Nag Hammadi (including their translations): by page and line number.

30. jeff_winger - February 09, 2011 at 03:48 pm

@de_safran: Word.

31. gent258 - February 09, 2011 at 04:33 pm

I like being able to download a book at midnight, but trying to find page numbers for citations is a nightmare. I wanted to quote from the ebook for a paper that I was presenting at a conference. Fortunately, I was able to find a hard copy of the book at a local bookstore. I copied the page number.

32. pmnardi - February 10, 2011 at 11:44 am

Amazon just announced that page numbers are now available for many books with their new Kindle software upgrade (version 3.1). I just downloaded it and it works great. You have the option of page numbers or location numbers. Four of the 5 new books I recently purchased now have page numbers. I guess it's also up to the publishers' cooperation as well as Amazon's.

33. rickman - February 11, 2011 at 07:27 am

Ultimately, it seems clear that solutions along the lines of those suggested by amy_l and ejb_123 (and many others) are desirable. In the meantime, I'm glad that Amazon has at least shown some awareness that there's a problem. What annoyed me most about the locations idea is that there isn't even a way to stipulate the exact location of a quote, at least in the Kindle software on the iPad: instead, they give you the location _range_ of the text that happens to be on the screen at the time, which defeats the whole purpose of having such small units.

34. austinbarry - February 11, 2011 at 08:59 am

I agree with amy_1 as well. We need some sort of stable reference which can be followed whither an electronic (any format) or print (any format) was used. Ideally it would be some sort of paragraph label which would survive reformatting of the text, or even translation. As people have pointed out, such systems have been in place for hundreds of years, and applied to the Great Books. Since I imagine that the "master copy" of any modern book is an electronic document, adding these references to the Lesser Books would be easy.

In an ideal situation, publishers of electronic books would provide a hyperlinking service whereby one of these references could be clicked on and the paragraph displayed, perhaps with a button to click and buy the entire book. Any sales generated from this might justify the minor effort to apply paragraph labels.

35. lmcerruti - February 11, 2011 at 01:19 pm

I understand that the next version of epub (the established encoding standard for files that are then ingested into proprietary e-reading software) will accommodate page numbers. This, at least, will make e-books "compatible" with the edition of the print books on which they are based. I'm still a little shocked that the original designers of epub decided to act as if there was no predecessor to the e-book--also completely ignoring the needs of scholars and students.

Now, as some publishers move toward completely digital workflows where print books may be as reflowable as e-books, page numbers will be problematic for citation. My guess is that this is 5-10 years away and that page numbers will suffice in the interim. When the transformation happens, the e-book will be the primary edition for scholars, and scholars will be fairly comfortable with typing in a string of 4-5 words in order to follow a citation back to its original source.

36. dabilock - February 11, 2011 at 01:42 pm

You can tell students to bookmark these two pages which have the current information:

(APA 6th ed.) How do I cite an e-book on a device like a Kindle, Nook, or iPad?


(MLA 7th ed.) How do I cite an e-book on a device like a Kindle, Nook, or iPad?


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