Society is littered with great debates: Leave or Remain, Tory or Labour, jam first or cream first. The last point alludes to the cream tea debate, and obviously the Cornish method is best (in my own incredibly biased opinion). Like society, academia has its fair share of internal debates, and although referencing is not one that will lead to heated arguments or fisticuffs, it divides opinion. Just what is the best referencing system in terms of being the most useful and preferable?

Students regularly adapt to differing referencing systems and are at the mercy of whatever guidelines their lecturer/college/university/faculty state. During the course of my own education I came across several different systems, ranging from Harvard (in my Access to Higher Education programme and in English Literature at degree level) and footnoting (for my History degree). During the course of this swinging about my own position cemented in favour of footnotes.

Of course, footnoting is a more difficult system to master than that of Harvard. It asks more from the student and is less forgiving in terms of its formatting. However, it is a more elegant and useful system. “Why is this?” I hear you ask. Well, allow me to explain.

Firstly, its greater elegance is clear when casting your eyes down on the page. The writing is there to see, as intended by the author, with only the interruption of these small, delicate, little numbers. Whereas the Harvard reference page is bloated with the heavy use of parenthesis distorting the main flow of text. I remember writing assignments prior to the standardisation of how to cite websites, and some lecturers requested the full web-link within the brackets on the page. This made for a very ugly page of text. Then there was the request to add ‘[online]’ into the text, which although it eliminated the web-link (which was reduced to the bibliography), still included some unsightly symbols that were unnecessary.

Example of footnoting from a recent article

Even though Harvard systems have reduced the in-text citation information to author, year, and page number (if a printed text), there is still an interruption to the intended, original flow of an argument. As such, it is an unwanted guest. It is far better to keep such citation information separate from the main feast.

Which brings me to the second point: footnoting is far more useful. The Harvard system can only supply reduced information (principally author and year of publication), whereas a footnote at the bottom of the page can provide far greater info. This expansion includes the book title and (in many cases) publisher details, but the footnote can also provide more information to the reader regarding other issues, recommended wider reading, or just a nice digression. The digression itself has no business being on the page in the main body of text, but being nestled in the footnotes means that it has a purpose for the reader. The Harvard system has no solution other than to actually revert to a footnote (perhaps using an asterisk) to provide this information! The inclusion of an asterisk is, then, an admission of the supremacy of the footnoting system.

Clearly, then, the footnote is the most beautiful and useful of referencing systems. The text remains uncluttered, and there is additional space for material that may help the reader further. The Harvard system pales in comparison and having read this you should now be a convert and advocate for footnotes. Welcome to the Footnoting Fanclub, dear member.