Mike Taylor hates numbered references. He notes that numbered referencing saves space in print journals journals where space is at a premium. For journals on the web, there are no space constraints, and thus no reason to use numbered references.
I want to dig down into reference styles a little. I think I can show why professional scientists are more likely to prefer references using author and year (also know as Harvard referencing) than anybody else.
Several people say that the (Author, Year) reference format allows them to evaluate some of the paper’s claims on the fly. “Wait a minute, why are they citing Jones and Peabody 1988? They didn’t show that!”
But this only works if you know the literature extremely well. I’m skeptical of how often people are able to do this. Personally, I constantly have to look up which paper some particular claim was in. Heck, I can barely tell you the years some of my own papers were published. “Hm. Did that one come out in 2005 or 2006?”
But never mind my own shortcomings. The point is:
The more deeply a scientist specializes, the more he or she can recognize papers by the author and year alone.
Another reason professional scientists like the (Author, Year) format is because of the personal branding. If someone cites your paper multiple times, it builds name recognition – particularly if you have a slightly distinctive name in your field. And that can help facilitate networking at conferences and general career development.
Writers of scientific journal articles also have reasons to like the (Author, Year) style, because it’s easier to prepare a reference list. If you insert one reference in the middle of a manuscript, all the references after it have to change. That's why I use name and year references in blog posts; they're quick and easy to do by hand.
I think this also explains why having the full references at the end of the paper more common than footnotes. I shudder to think of doing footnotes on a typewriter.
Nobody doubts that numbered references are shorter that the Harvard style. But the advantage goes beyond saving paper.
Gregory (1992) gives an example where replacing “author and year” references with numbered references reduced 149 words to a mere 22. But he argued that this tremendously improved the readability:
The original passage is unspeakable and unreadable, but neither the author nor the editor is interested in whether anyone reads the paper. Indeed, they prefer nobody reads beyond the summary, or better still, beyond the authors’ names.
I don’t think it’s an accident that most books describing research for a general audience treat references with a light touch. Typically, you’ll find only a list of key references at the end, with very few (Author, Year) intrusions into the text.
The more rigorously documented and referenced a work is, the more difficult it is to read.
Numbered references are fairer to scientific authors than the (Author, Year) format. The tradition is that if you have three or more authors on a paper, the reference in the test is given by the name of the first author only.
If you’re author #2 on a three author paper, you’re screwed. Why should one person get on a large team get such a disproportionate amount of personal advertising by having their name printed throughout the main body of a paper, while the name of author 2 of 3 is only printed once in the literature cited? It’s no coincidence that order of authorship is a common cause of fights and discontent between researchers. More and more papers are being written by larger and large groups of authors, meaning this problem is only going to get worse.
As for the ease of preparing a manuscript, this is why specialty reference manager software exists. We are not living in the age of typewriters any more.
For online journals, technology should be able to provide a “best of both worlds” solution. It should be possible to have numbered references where you could pull up a complete citation in a little pop-up window by hovering the cursor over the number, similar to clicking the magnifying glass icon next to search results on Google.
So the style of referencing actually cuts to a very deep question: Who is a scientific journal article for? One format favours the professionals: the people who are deeply embedded in the literature, and who actively contribute to it. The other favours the readers: those just entering the field and the curious bystanders.
“Open science” is not just about who pays for research and reprints and journal subscriptions; it’s about access in the broadest sense. And something as simple as the reference could raise or lower the barrier to someone reading a research paper, even if just by a smidgen.
I’d much rather the barrier be a smidgen lower than a smidgen higher.
P.S.—I wondered if anyone had ever done any research on the pros and cons of the different reference styles. The only paper I was able to find bore the title, “How the name date (Harvard) reference style in papers shows an underlying interpretivist paradigm whilst numeric references show a functional paradigm.”
That I wasn’t able to find a copy was a relief. Paradigms. I would have been way out of my depth.
Gregory M. 1992. The infectiousness of pompous prose. Nature 360 (6399): 11-12. DOI: 10.1038/360011a0
Oakley P. 2003. How the name date (Harvard) reference style in papers shows an underlying interpretivist paradigm whilst numeric references show a functional paradigm. Systemist 25: 25-30.
Additional: An independent analysis at The Open Source Paleontologist arrives at some similar conclusions.