According to a post at Inside HigherEd, the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers introduces some dramatic changes:

the Modern Language Association no longer recognizes print as the default medium, and suggests that the medium of publication should be included in each works cited entry

the MLA has ceased to recommend inclusion of URLs in citing Web-based works – unless the instructor requires it or a reader would likely be unable to locate the source otherwise. “Inclusion of URLs has proved to have limited value… for they often change, can be specific to a subscriber or a session of use, and can be so long and complex that typing them into a browser is cumbersome and prone to transcription errors. Readers are now more likely to find resources on the Web by searching for titles and authors’ names than by typing URLs,”

These two modifications to a reference work acknowledge the changes that have been encroaching on publishers for years now. First, print is only one medium, and likely not the dominant medium, for scholarship. Second, URLs are a poor substitute for Google.

I lingered over that last point as I read this. Recently, Mitch Joel of Six Pixels of Separation noted that Google is every company’s and every publisher’s home page. It’s where your audience looks for you, and how you rank there tells them a lot about how authoritative you are, how you rank against competing sources, and how digitally aware you are.

The MLA is acknowledging the power of Google, I believe, by stating that all you need to do is describe a resource sufficiently, and users can find it online.

Now, you can say you can use any search engine of course, but get real. It’s all about the Google.

One final point of interest — I recently noted that books might be moving to become services. This style guide promises “[c]ontinuous access [to the companion web site] throughout the life of the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook.”


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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


12 Thoughts on "Print Goes Out of Style"

The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t direct you to the authoritative version of the item as intended by the author of the paper you are reading. Simply googling the author and the paper title could lead you to any stage of pre-print or post-print modified version.

Sort of makes sense: there are at least three things at work here – descriptor, identifier, locator – of which the last is the most volatile. After all, traditional citations don’t generally include the library shelf-mark! And, sound as the concept of URIs is, I wonder if we’ll ever really separate them adequately, in general use, from URLs. What of DOIs I wonder? Ah, looks like I’ll have to sign up with MLA and … go to their URL. 😉

“Everyone uses Google” is something we hear a lot. But the reality in the biomedical sciences is that most scientists use PubMed to search the literature (Google Scholar seems to be gaining little traction with them). The next generation of academics may act differently; however, given that PubMed/Medline provides the additional element of filtering/validation and NLM is expanding its archiving efforts in the form of PMC, this may be an area Google and, more importantly, Google-like rankings – do not take over.

That relies so much on Google, it’s scary. What if Google goes out of business? Are we assuming that Google (or another great search engine) will be here forever? We need a standard identifier that is shorter than current URLs and that can point to a page even when it changes location – a tall order!

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Digital Object Identifier (DOI), which is exactly what Virginia Bourgeois describes in her comment above: a standard identifier that is shorter than current URLs and that can point to a page even when it changes location. See for more info.

The real snag with citing online works is that they can and do change without any reference to previous versions. If I write “There are even blue varieties of apple” on a website and then someone corrects me and I change it to “There are no blue apples”, there’s no evidence that I ever said otherwise unless I specifically choose to mention that I made the change. Meanwhile, some well-meaning student may have used my erroneous earlier assertion to bolster an argument in a paper; a fact-checking teacher will come to my site, see that I specifically deny the existence of blue apples, and dock the student points. The immutability of paper offers an easy version control system that slows down the inclusion of new information but guarantees that two people looking at the same edition of the same book will see the same material.

If the mutability of web pages is the problem, then this points to wikipedia as one the strongest internet resources, if not the strongest. Every change on the wiki is tracked and pages have version numbers, so citing the date the page was cited can lead back to the exact copy in the history section.

Why would the MLA feel it necessary to label the media on a citation? I thought the form of the citation was dictated by the source material.

@Josh English, #10: I completely agree that Wikipedia’s changelog feature is as crucial to accurate citation as mentioning whether one is referring to, say, the sixth or seventh edition of the MLA Handbook. For accessing older versions of other sites, there’s the Wayback Machine, though it’s not 100% reliable. At the very least, I feel one should include an access date in a website citation. The obscenely conscientious or paranoid could even take screencaps.

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