What’s with all the DOIs?

A recent article at Inside Higher Education, which is mostly about plagiarism and related ills, reminded me of a personal peeve with citation rules. Some recent changes to citation guides, like APA, are advising the use of DOI (digital object identifiers) for sources that are both print and digital, but otherwise identical in content and pagination.

I remember talking to my students one day about citation etiquette and the internet. Some sources are exclusively electronic, such as Opuscula: Short Texts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance or First Monday, and need to have citations directing readers to the digital address and it’s usually a good idea to say when you read the source, as digital content can change over time. Sources that only exist as digital entities, even if they have volume and issue numbers, still need an address so the reader can more accurately locate the version you used.

But what about print articles contained in various journal databases? JSTOR hosts content from thousands of journals, all of which appeared (and continue to appear) in print form. Some of those same journals are hosted by Project Muse and elsewhere by individual publishers. If all these versions are the same (and there is no reason to expect them to be different), why tell the reader where your pdf came from?

What’s more, JSTOR is a subscription database and those little ‘permanent addresses’ and DOI’s will only take you to the abstract or the first page of the document unless you also have access to the database. The article above mentions that some citation guides tell writers to say that an item was ‘retrieved from’ the publisher’s site, and not the actual location of the digital version, like a library database. How is this helpful? If there is no material difference between the one version and the other, why does it matter? And, more importantly, if neither address actually takes the reader to the complete source, what value is that detail?

The principle at work in citations, at least as I have tried to explain it to students, is to allow a reader to follow your work back to the source. That’s why your citations must be detailed enough to get that reader to the same place. That means that students who give all those strings of html and DOI numbers still need to add the full journal titles, volume and issue numbers, dates and page numbers because the reader may not have access to the same database. Even if the reader had that access, the traditional citation would do just fine. Again, the only reason to include the electronic details is in cases where a digital version differs from print or when it is the only version of the source.

As far as the reader is concerned, if the JSTOR article from Past & Present is identical (in content, pagination, etc.) as the print version, or the one from the Oxford University Press database of journals, there is no need to list a DOI or html address. I note that the flow-chart linked in the article seems to ignore that distinction and asks only whether there are DOI or html details in the source. Considering that some print sources add the DOI, out of thoroughness (such as The Antiquaries Journal), one wonders if you really need to include that at all.

I made an analogy that seemed to make sense. If I use my university copy of William Eamon’s Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton: 1994), I wouldn’t include the shelf-mark found on the spine. This is essentially what students are asked to do when they give the permanent html address for a journal article otherwise found in print. I say the same for digital books, unless the pagination is different in the digital form. No one would expect me to mention which library an ILL came from in my bibliography, but reading some of the citation rules, it seems like I would need to.

As a final point, I confess I have never used a DOI to locate a source. I can only imagine needing it in the highly unlikely event that a writer cited only that piece of information and omitted everything else.

It’s hard enough to convince students to take these things seriously. It’s impossible to do it when the rules get to the point where the historians themselves ignore them.

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2 thoughts on “What’s with all the DOIs?

  1. Sometimes when I try to follow a DOI link, they don’t even work. I wonder if requirements to cite URLs are more about helping publishers with market research and protecting their rights over paywalled resources than about helping academics to find the cited source.

    • I think you’re right and certainly, Fister makes the implication. I can understand the publisher’s motive for tracking other published citations and how those sources were found, but why make students do it? Publishers can track student usage through the database stats and downloads, they won’t be reading the papers they right. Besides, citations are supposed to help readers, not publishers. I think we should ignore those ‘monetized’ citation rules and just get the students to invest in the ‘show your work, not for the sake of the prof’, but for your own sake’ mentality.

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