Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Two tips that will improve the lives of all students and researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Posted: Aug 16, 2014 13:08;
Last Modified: Aug 16, 2014 13:08



A recent question on Linked-in asked how important the formatting guides for journals are in preparing submissions.

Although this question was about submitting to journals, its context is relevant to all students and researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities (although the problem also exists in the sciences, the solutions there are in some cases different). Humanities and Social Science study in University is largely about the collection of bibliography and the presentation of findings in written form. And that invariably involves questions of formatting: different disciplines and even different journals (or for students, instructors) within a discipline can require work to be submitted in quite different styles.


The bad old days

Twenty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate, keeping track of and implementing these styles was a major problem: most students still typed their essays (some still even wrote them out by hand); and what wordprocessors there were were quite primitive (the first popular version of Windows, for example, and with it, the first really successful version of Word, came out the year after I went to Graduate School). Public library catalogues were still largely on paper or microfiche, and, most crucially, there was no World Wide Web.

In those days, ensuring your essay or article submission followed the correct format was a very time consuming task. And things got a lot worse if you needed to reformat something for submission elsewhere—e.g. sending a rejected article to a different journal or reformatting an essay for use as a dissertation chapter or to journal submission. Moreover, authors needed to know a number of different citation formats: APA, MLA, Harvard, and so on. There were few if any tools to help you automate this task (or if there were, I didn’t know about them). The only way of doing it accurately was to consult the relevant style guide and look for examples of the type of work you wanted to format (e.g. single-author mongraphs, chapters in edited collections, etc.).

Modern tools and practices

Things are a lot different today. Wordprocessors are much better and (free) tools exist to take care of your bibliographic management. If you still find yourself stressed by formatting tasks, it means you doing things wrong.

The next two posts will explain two basic practices and tools that anybody who works or studies the Social Sciences and Humanities should know about—and use if they would prefer to spend their time researching and writing rather than formatting their work.

The first post, on using wordprocessor styles, addresses the issue of formatting text for submission to instructors or journals for publication. It shows you how you can use the “style” function found in all popular contemporary wordprocessors to ensure consistency across the entire document: make sure all your headings are formatted the same way (or, if you have different levels of headings, that the headings at each level are formatted the same way); make sure that all block quotations have the same margins; that all paragraphs have the same first line indentations. And then change all of these across the entire document automatically and in seconds, if you discover that a particular instructor or journal wants things formatted differently.

The second post, on using citation managers, addresses the more specialised issue of collecting bibliography and formatting citations correctly. It shows you how a citation manager can take over this task almost entirely. Modern citation managers allow you to collect bibliography directly and automatically from library catalogues, many journal articles, and sites like (some even allow you to add books by photographing the barcodes on their dust jackets). They then integrate with your wordprocess to allow you to add citations as you write—they allow you to go through the material you have collected looking for the items you want and then, once you have found what you want, insert the citation into the text and bibliography of your essay at the click of a button. As with wordprocessor styles, moreover, citation managers also automatically handle the tediously detailed work of making sure your bibliographic entries conform to the format demanded by your instructor or journal: with a click of a button, you can change from APA to MLA to Chicago, or even, in some cases, design your own format.

Why you should care

Too many students and even professional researchers in the humanities and social sciences waste time doing unnecessary formatting tasks. By using wordprocessing styles and citation managers, it is possible to reduce the amount of effort these basic tasks require to almost nothing. If you are an advanced student or researcher, adopting these approaches will improve your efficiency several fold as soon as you can get used to the new way of working. This is especially true if you are working on a book or thesis that will involve maintaining consistency of format and citation style across a number of different chapters (in fact, if you are in that situation, I’d recommend stopping what you are doing and taking a couple of days to implement these right now—they improve things that much).

If you are just beginning your time as a university student, I recommend adopting them even more strongly: now is the time to get used to good habits that will save you time further down the road and you might be surprised how often you end up reusing citations and bibliography you acquire this year for the first time.





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