I’m increasingly of the opinion that academic references are not as important as we make out.
We spend a vast amount of effort teaching students how to Do It Right, from Level 1/introductory undergraduate courses all the way up to PhDs. And one of the major pieces of work in producing journal articles (beyond the writing and refereeing) is checking and fixing the references so they are all perfectly correct and in the journal style. All the way through we’re spending lots of energy and time making sure that the references are just so.
But I don’t think it matters – or at least, not as much as we act as if it does. Consistency and style are important, and help give a professional impression. But really, the function of a reference is to enable the reader to follow up the reference. It doesn’t have to be perfectly correct if it’s a human-readable reference – just unambiguous.
Getting a hyperlink dead right is important – but there are hardly any problems with those, because everyone just cuts and pastes them. There is one format that works everywhere. Whereas for a human-readable citation there are at least twelve widely-used citation styles, which in practice are applied slightly differently in different contexts. So a cut-and-paste isn’t good enough: you have to transform all the citations in to a single style, and the one required by the context for which you’re writing.
Software systems promise to make this easy, but my experience is that it’s taking more, not less effort to manage references since the early 90s when BibTeX solved the problem (for people who can use BibTeX easily). My guess is that in disciplines where LaTeX papers are the norm, there’s less of an issue. Another point to support Patrick McAndrew’s case that Word and other WYSIWYG word processors have seriously impeded academic writing.
When I’m following a reference, I’d much rather have a DOI or a hyperlink to a full text copy than any ‘correctness’ of citation. I can just click – and I’m there. And if there’s no hyperlink, I can just use Google Scholar on the most identifying part of the reference (unusual title, author names, whatever) and be at the paper in seconds. It really doesn’t matter whether the journal title is in italics or not, or whether the paper title is in double or single quotes, or whether I get an issue number, page numbers, or neither (in most cases).
It used to be really helpful to have a proper, full reference. Volume numbers, for instance, were pretty handy if you wanted to locate a paper – it would tell you which tome to grab from the groaning library shelf. Page numbers, too – it’s much faster to simply turn to page 2323 than to hunt down the right issue contents page, then scan to find the page reference, and then turn to page 2323. But that’s just not how most people find references these days.
So I don’t think references are as important as we make them out to be.
Referencing, of course, is a different matter. It actually is really important in academic writing to show clearly what is your contribution and what it is you’re picking up from elsewhere, and where you’re getting it from. And this is more, not less important in a fast-moving digitised world.
I think our time would be better spent if we diverted some of the effort we currently spend on the fiddly references stuff to getting better at the proper and clear referencing stuff.