The importance of a referencing stylesheet in academic research

Are you new to academic research and are confused by the stylesheets? Are you confused by the plethora of stylesheets available, like MLA, Chicago, and APA? Learn from this beginner's guide why stylesheets are necessary in academic writing, and which one should you choose for your research.

When you are writing an academic research paper (or a dissertation, thesis, or a book), you need to refer to previous publications and duly cite them in your work. Otherwise, you will be charged for plagiarism, which is a serious academic offence – not only your research will lose all its merits, but you can be legally penalized as well. However, when it comes to referencing, there are several accepted methodologies, which are commonly called 'referencing style guides' or stylesheets. Some of the most popular referencing style guides are the MLA Style (stipulated by the Modern Language Association of America or MLA), the Chicago Style (alias The Chicago Manual of Style or CMOS. It is also called the 'Turabian Style' or simple 'Turabian', after the name of Kate L. Turabian, the original author of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.), and APA (based on the Publication Manual of the American Psychology Association). All of these can be pretty confusing for a newbie in the field of academic research. In this article, we will try to understand what stylesheets are, why are they necessary, and which one you should learn or use for your academic research.

What is a stylesheet and why do we need to use one?

No work of research can materialize without proper and sufficient literature review. Often, beginning students are misguided by the term 'literature review' and conclude that you require it only if you are a student of languages and literatures. This is completely wrong, as in simple words, the phrase 'literature review' means 'what your previous researchers have done already'. If we want to understand academic research without going into bookish definitions, we may simply perceive it as a continuation of existing knowledge, and the innovation or discovery of new knowledge based on that existing knowledge. However, it is essential that a researcher should have a fair bit of idea about what has been done in that particular field of research already. Otherwise, the research will lack credibility.

For example, let us assume that a person knows nothing about Isaac Newton and his works. Incidentally, he saw a coconut falling from the tree, and came to discover the laws of gravity exactly in the same way Newton had done. As we know, that person had no previous knowledge about Newton's works, and he did not see an apple falling – it was coconut in his case. He researched to discover the laws of gravity as painstakingly as Newton had done. Just imagine what will happen if he presents his 'unique' research to the world – will he get as much reverence as Newton or will people think he has gone crazy? That he did not know about Newton was entirely his fault – while researching about the laws of gravity, he should have gone through all the major works previously done in that field. One cannot re-discover what has already been discovered.

However, one cannot use the existing knowledge in his or her research work without giving due credits to the original author. That will be plagiarism. So, how should one refer to the previous publications? If there is no certain rule of doing that, everybody will cite in his or her own method, which would not be understood by others. Think of languages. They are predefined signifier-signified sets that everybody understands. For example, the word 'cat' or the sound '[kat]' is designated to mean a little furry quadruped, and everyone who understands or agrees with a predefined set of signified-signifiers called the English language will understand that word or sound. Or, take traffic signals for example – the red light is a predefined signifier for stopping your vehicle, and everybody learns to agree with that signifier. Similarly, in referencing too, a predefined set of rules is required that everyone (or a majority of the researchers) should follow in order to make sense for others. Those predefined sets of rules regarding how to style a particular publication, and in which format, are what the stylesheets all about.

Why are there different stylesheets instead of just one?

There are different stylesheets in academia pretty much for the same reason there are different cultures and civilizations around the world – all of them originated and developed in their own unique ways. If the entire world would have been just one socio-cultural, religious, and linguistic community, it would probably be easier for everybody to communicate with others. Similarly, if there was just one exhaustive stylesheet for referencing which would be used all over the world for all sorts of academic writings, then the burden of learning several referencing style guides could have been reduced. However, at present that is not what we have, any just like socio-cultural / religious/ linguistic diversities have their own beauties and advantages, having different sorts of stylesheets are actually beneficial at times.

Which referencing style should you use – MLA, Chicago, APA, AP, or others?

Well, there is no one-liner answer to that. As different stylesheets had evolved differently to suit and cater to different academic requirements, a researcher proficient in all or most of them can choose to switch between them as per his or her requirements. For example, many people find APA or Chicago better for social science disciplines, while MLA is the normative stylesheet for most language and literature publications. If you are a student and these stylesheets are there in your course syllabus, you do not have a choice but to learn them all. Also, if you want to work in the publication industry, it is essential that you have an in-depth understanding of most of them, if not all. You might have been taught the MLA style of referencing in your school, but while pursuing a career in the publication industry (for example, as a proofreader), you might come across a book which has minutely followed the Chicago Manual or Style.

Sounds daunting and confusing? Well, if you are just a beginner in the field of research, you do not have to consume all those bulky rulebooks of referencing styles at one go. You can choose to learn the one most used for your academic discipline, at the same time educating yourself about the basic differences between major referencing styles.


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