A Tale of Two MLA Bibliographies

Last month I questioned the Modern Language Association’s decision, handed down in the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook, to exclude URLs (i.e. web addresses) from bibliographies and Works Cited lists. My readers seemed to be divided, and Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, joined the conversation by outlining some of the reasons for the new style guidelines. I appreciated both Rosemary’s insider perspective and her levelheaded response to my rhetorical flourishes (I wrote with gleeful abandon that the new guidelines represented nothing less than “historiographic homicide”).

The fact is, as Rosemary pointed out, you can still include URLs, they’re just not there by default. I can live with that. I’m reasonably attuned to both my sources and my audience. I can figure out when I should include web addresses for my audience’s benefit and when I shouldn’t.

But the problem isn’t me. It’s computers.

What happens when ProCite or EndNote or Zotero generates your bibliography? What happens when novice scholars — as most of our undergraduates and even our graduate students are — use a machine-made bibliography, formatted automatically without any insight or intervention?

Or, what happens when you’re just in a hurry and you let the software finalize your research for you? This is what happened to me, in fact. Just a few days ago.

The problem isn’t me. It’s computers.

I had presented a paper at the MLA’s annual convention in late December, and several people asked me to send them a copy. It was a decent paper. Not overly ambitious, just me tackling a question I had about the unorthodox use of cut scenes in the PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus. I certainly didn’t mind sending out copies to friendly audience members. As I was looking over the document in Word before emailing it, though, I noticed something very strange about my bibliography. The list of sources seemed too bare somehow. Frail. Skeletal. Impoverished.

And of course I realized what was wrong. I had formatted the bibliography through Zotero, using the new MLA style guidelines. URLs were gone, vanished, kaput! The effect was quite dramatic, since many of my sources were digital born, published in online journals with no print equivalent.

Luckily, Zotero developers extraordinaire Simon Kornblith, Christian Werthschulte, and Sebastian Karcher have created several branches of the MLA citation style for Zotero, one of them being the “MLA Style for purposes where the URL is still required.” I promptly installed the style (and you can too, if you have the Zotero plugin). I reformatted my bibliography, and finally I saw what I wanted to see: direct links to whatever sources my readers would want to follow up on.

You know which bibliographic style I prefer, but what about you?

Here’s a little experiment.

I am including below the two different bibliographies from my paper “Playing the Cut Scene: Agency and Vision in Shadow of the Colossus. Both were automatically generated by Zotero. The first version of the bibliography follows the new MLA citation guidelines and excludes URLs. The second version follows older MLA practices and includes URLs. Which one do you prefer? Look them over and answer the poll at the bottom of the post.

MLA BIBLIOGRAPHY #1 (FOLLOWS NEW GUIDELINES)

  • Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style.” Gamesutra 21 Jan 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2009.
  • Ciccoricco, David. “’Play, Memory’: Shadow of the Colossus and Cognitive Workouts.” Dichtung-Digital 2007. Web. 14 Mar 2009.
  • Fortugno, Nick. “Losing Your Grip: Futility and Dramatic Necessity in Shadow of the Colossus.” Well Played: Video Games, Value and Meaning. ETC Press (Beta). Web. 21 Jun 2009.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
  • Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Print.
  • Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some Thoughts on Player-Character Relationships in Videogames.” Game Studies 2.1 (2002): n. pag. Web. 25 Dec 2009.
  • —. Videogames. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  • Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade, 2000. Print.
  • Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.
  • Sherman, Ben. “Story Mechanics as Game Mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus.” Gamesutra 28 Mar 2006. Web. 14 Mar 2009.
  • Squire, Kurt, and Henry Jenkins. “The Art of Contested Spaces.” Publications. Web. 15 Dec 2009.
  • Wolf, Mark J. P. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Print.

MLA BIBLIOGRAPHY #2 (FOLLOWS OLD GUIDELINES)

  • Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style.” Gamesutra 21 Jan 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2009. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3909/persuasive_games_the_.php?print=1>.
  • Ciccoricco, David. “’Play, Memory’: Shadow of the Colossus and Cognitive Workouts.” Dichtung-Digital 2007. Web. 14 Mar 2009. <http://www.brown.edu/Research/dichtung-digital/2007/Ciccoricco/ciccoricco.htm>.
  • Fortugno, Nick. “Losing Your Grip: Futility and Dramatic Necessity in Shadow of the Colossus.” Well Played: Video Games, Value and Meaning. ETC Press (Beta). Web. 21 Jun 2009. <http://www.etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/node/278>.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
  • Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Print.
  • Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some Thoughts on Player-Character Relationships in Videogames.” Game Studies 2.1 (2002): n. pag. Web. 25 Dec 2009. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/>.
  • —. Videogames. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  • Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade, 2000. Print.
  • Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.
  • Sherman, Ben. “Story Mechanics as Game Mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus.” Gamesutra 28 Mar 2006. Web. 14 Mar 2009. <http://gamasutra.com/features/20060328/sherman_01.shtml>.
  • Squire, Kurt, and Henry Jenkins. “The Art of Contested Spaces.” Publications. Web. 15 Dec 2009. <http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/contestedspaces.html>.
  • Wolf, Mark J. P. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Print.
[polldaddy poll=2485235]

9 thoughts on “A Tale of Two MLA Bibliographies

    • Ben, you’re right. The second style with URLs is more of a merger between the old style (including URLs) and the new style (indicating whether it’s Web or Print). If I had my dithers (and time to make my own Zotero citation style), I’d eliminate the “birth-indicator,” as that piece of meta-data is already made obvious by the presence of the URL.

      In any case, I think the difference between the two styles is still clear, as is the fact that researchers/students/teachers still need to know the difference between the two in order to make the decision about which one to use. Many researchers, novice and professional alike, might not realize we have the capability to make that decision, though, when we let software write our citations.

  1. When the URL is four lines long, carrying the keywords you entered and bearing a session IDs and requiring an EBSCO Host account, then the URL was pointless to include. When the URL points to a well-formed permalink, it’s pointless to omit.

    • I tend to agree with you, Dennis. In fact, my beef has never been with the decision to eliminate URLs for materials coming from databases like JSTOR or Ebesco; as long as the journal name, volume and issue number are there, such things are easy to find. It’s the born digital materials, from online peer review journals like Game Studies or blogs, where the exclusion of URLs seems misguided. And luckily, those places usually offer stable, concise permalinks. But we still need to train our students to use them, even if their quick gloss of the MLA Handbook tells them they don’t have to.

  2. I joked about this on Twitter earlier today, but now I think it’s not a half bad idea: Zotero should set up its own URL shortening service (think http://zote.ro), to take care of those awfully long illegible URLs generated by databases. Maybe this is something Zotero can incorporate into the upcoming Zotero Commons (sponsored in part by the Internet Archive).

  3. Permalink? There’s a link rot for that. Seriously, read this: a study of journals in “biomedical informatics” examined published articles from 1999–2004 and in-press articles from 2005. Only 69% of the cited URLs were still alive. Most astounding, even in the in-press articles only 80% were still alive. On average, 5% of the links went bad every year. These percentages are especially significant because biomedical authors probably cite unusually stable kinds of sources:
    http://www.ijmijournal.com/article/S1386-5056(06)00008-6/abstract

    • That’s a fascinating article in IJMI. I wonder if anyone has done a similar study of articles in the humanities. If not, one seriously needs to be funded. I especially value the authors’ conclusions: “A commonly accepted strategy for the permanent archival of digital information referenced in scholarly publications is urgently needed.”

      I don’t think any of us would disagree about that conclusion, and I wonder if my Zotero/Zotero Commons solution (using Zotero to take a “snapshot” of a page as well as generate a short print-friendly URL) might work as a kind of grassroots DOI movement. Stanford University Library’s LOCKSS program (mentioned in the IJMI article) offers a similar solution.

      Still, I maintain my original position that even dead URLs are citeable, as they contain important historical metadata, acting in essence as “the provenance” of a page. You might call this the forensic point of view.

  4. I’m torn. On the one hand, I like the clean lines of the new MLA form, but what is weird is that the web things don’t say Web or Online or whatever like the print things say Print. That’s just bass-ackwards. On the other hand, one of the things I like about the new MLA format is that it does less to distinguish between print and online scholarship — when a reader seeing a URL automatically dismisses it as “less,” that’s a problem that the new MLA style ameliorates. Kinda. Still, in the end, I like having the URLs because then I can click! Better yet, publish everything online and open-source and then embed the URLs into the article titles. That’s the best of all worlds, imo :)

  5. I’m with you on the last solution. Embedded URLs (which of course is something I could’ve done above, but that would’ve spoiled my argument!).

    I do like your point that the new format is a bit more democratic, putting Web and Print on the same level of scholarship.

Comments are closed.