Off Topic Study Question: Why so many (similar yet different) styles?

How do universities rationalize mandating the use of a unique citation style? Short answer: they don't try. Other than tradition and inertia it seems no one really knows when or why their flavor of APA, Chicago, or Harvard came to be a university standard. Further, within universities, the departments are allowed to set citation standards that diverge from the university standard.

I've tried to find published research on this topic but mulit-database queries of EBSCO, etc. produced nothing really relevant. I did a bit of searching within the literature of academic administration, authorship, psychology, sociology, and other fields. All without success. My curiosity got control over my free time and I tried a bit of casual information gathering.

I talked with university, college, and department leaders and librarians at local institutions and at several accross the USA.

Few could say specifically how the style standards were determined or who was responsible for the decision. Further investigation showed that for 8 of the 13 universities, the style standard was determined at the department level. Of those 8, I tried to talk with department leaders and had better success than I expected. I was able to talk with someone in departments of art history, business administration, economics, engineering, and sociology at each of the 8. No one could say how the initial selection was made. All said that when a standard-making body updated their style guide, there was discussion of whether or when to follow the upgrade. I was surprised to learn that every department allowed long-time faculty members (if they desired) to use older versions of a style (and to penalize students who used the current version) or to set a style standard of their own.

Department and university leaders all said that they had never given reference style standards much thought and that they didn't much care. What mattered was getting published and that they thought journals paid great attention to manuscript standards when initially evaluating a submission before sending it for review. Each person I talked with said, in their own way, that my questions led them to think about reference styles and the relevance of close adherence with styles to academic standards.

I was able to talk with about 50 people at some length and 30 or so more for at least a few minutes. I did this work in my spare time over the past month or so to satisfy my own curiosity. I treat this as very preliminary investigation that I will not pursue. I wish that someone would do so with a much more formal approach. I preceded my calls with emails and was pleasantly surprised that there was near universal interest in participating.

I found a small body of research concerning the peer review process that covered how closely reviewers examined manuscript references. Essentially all of this research was with members of editorial boards. Despite the fact that most journals believe this to be a key role for reviewers, it seems most reviewers expect the journal's editorial staff to verify accuracy and relevance of included cites and to identify omitted literature. Many editorial board reviewers admit to only glancing at a manuscript's references.
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