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Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at Telegraph.co.uk - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

Gentlemen prefer footnotes

Tuesday, 29 January 2008
/another aside

MHRA vs Harvard - reference wars.

I find myself in the sad position of being forced to switch to a new referencing system for my academic work. I also find myself with unusually strong feelings about this, disgusted at the thought of the new system. See if you can guess which system I prefer.

I understand why some people might suggest that it is merely a case of familiarity and that we naturally prefer the system to which we first become accustomed.
They say this because they have been brainwashed by the hideous Harvard system and are confused and frightened by the majesty of the MHRA system.

For those unaware of the difference, academic references under the Harvard system take the form of brackets which (BANG: Bang - Don't mind me,2008) are embedded in the text beside the quote. Full details are then hidden at the back of the text. The MHRA system is one of footnotes found at the bottom of the page.*

The Harvard system is aggressive, insistent and pushy, forcing the reference upon you at the cost of smooth sentences. It shows a lack of trust and implies a need for the constant supervision of your argument. Writing with the Harvard system feels a lot like living in a police state, with a constant visual deterrent to original thought. References should support an argument, not disrupt it. They should add value to a new idea, not interrupt it.

The MHRA system on the other hand is elegant, discrete, and yet detailed. It adds value, and the appearance of value, like a tasteful expensive watch.

If we imagine both systems as dinner party guests, the Harvard system is an ill mannered brute who interrupts frequently with banal crudities, burps loudly and uses the wrong fork.
The MHRA system listens politely, supporting your anecdotes with witty asides and clever observations, and interjects briefly at well judged pauses in the story. He's better dressed, better looking, and when he sends the drunken Harvard system home after an altercation over a ladies honour, pays for the taxi and never mentions it again.

The split at my University seems to be that the humanities prefer footnotes while the sciences use the Harvard system. This is perhaps understandable as the humanities place great regard on the ability to waffle uninterrupted, proving assertions only as an afterthought, while the sciences rely on providing tiresome evidence.

It's my mistake to have moved from the arts to a social science without having properly considered the impact this would have on my referencing and style. But while Journalism is technically a social science, I would have thought the emphasis on language would encourage us towards the free poetry of footnote referencing. Not so. Instead it is demanded that I pollute my text with cancerous brackety boils.
Is it telling that I've never been forced to use footnotes, but that the brackets demand obedience?

So I'll use this damned system as long as I must. But I won't enjoy it.



*. And here is the reference. You'll notice the space I have down here for musing asides and accurate referencing. Whether you came here directly, or waited till the end of the page, you'll have been impressed by the freedom of choice.

5 comments:

Ian Nicholls said...

hallam made us use harvard. it gets annoying with the citations thing. strangely i was actually complaining about that to you like 2 days ago. i feel this makes me a nerd.

Peter said...

So lets break this down then -

"If we imagine both systems as dinner party guests, the Harvard system is an ill mannered brute who interrupts frequently with banal crudities, burps loudly and uses the wrong fork."
That would be an American, just like the Harvard system itself.

"The MHRA system listens politely, supporting your anecdotes with witty asides and clever observations, and interjects briefly at well judged pauses in the story."
And that would be a [cultivated] Brit. Like the MHRA.

No need to skirt around the issue you crypto-yankophobe...

Anyways, the crudest observation that can be made is that faculties that 'believe' themselves to be a 'science' use Harvard, whereas REAL scientists have magical mystery referencing systems all of their own, tailored to their crazy mad-scientist ways. Methinks Harvard is for those with a chip on their shoulder...

Why not try writing your piece in the European Molecular Biology Organization's reference system? Now therein the challenge!

Grace said...

I ♥MHRA. So much so that I actually bought the style guide at uni even though I could have got it online *cough*geek*cough*

I have a horrible feeling that a Diploma in Marketing may use Harvard...

I can see the advantages of not constantly having to break up your reading my looking at the bottom of the page (I know you don't have to, but the asterisk sort of demands it), but I think it looks nice and neat, and I'ce learned how to do it really well, damnit!

Helen said...

I too am a Harvard Hater. I am currently using it to fashion a lumpy looking social science essay *bleurgh*.

Three cheers for MHRA, and, *sob*, undergrad English Lit essays!

Michael Szollosy said...

...or, the Harvard system is the shy guest always looking at his feet...

Well put, though. But when it comes down to it, I've got one word for you.

MLA.

It's the tops, baby!

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