What I Do: References 101

So, apparently I took a little hiatus from the “What I Do” series… much to everyone’s chagrin, I’m sure! Actually, an editor friend of mine requested the links to my previous “What I Do” posts the other day, which reminded me that I should continue the fascinating series!

Another way in which my work differs from fun, fiction editing is that medical journals/books are chock full o’ reference lists. And, second only to pesky tables, references are one of my least favorite things in the world.

I’m betting that, in the very rare event that you’d pick up a medical journal and flip through it, you would totally take for granted the fact that all of the reference lists throughout the journal follow the same style (there’s that “style” thing again!). But, if the journal has been edited by a halfway decent copy editor, then yes, the reference lists should look the same.

And if you don’t happen to be a medical/technical copy editor, you probably have no idea just how many different reference styles there are. Let me help you out… there are LOTS of style possibilities for reference lists!!! Lots and lots and lots. And, as with most style points, not one is more “right” or “wrong” than the others… it just depends on the client’s preference.

Let’s pretend a reference is submitted like this (in the author’s original manuscript):

John A. Smith, Robert C. Jones, Michael R. Wilson, and Janet Riley. (2009). How to Style References. Journal of the American Editing Society, vol. 4, issue 10, pp 125-128.

That looks like a perfectly good reference citation, right? It has all of the required parts of a journal article citation… but, in two of the more common reference styles that I follow for my journals, not one thing about that citation is correct.  This is how that reference would look if I edited it for both styles:

Smith JA, Jones RC, Wilson MR, et al: How to style references. J Am Edit Soc 4:125-128, 2009


Smith JA, Jones RC, Wilson MR, Riley J. How to style references. J Am Edit Soc 2009;4(10):125-8.

And if this reference appeared in a book that I was editing… who knows. There is no standard for book editing. I’m always told to follow the author as closely as possible; but to make sure everything stays consistent throughout the book while doing so. Which means I pretty much choose a standard style to follow and hope that the client likes it! Here’s what that citation might look like in one of the books I edited:

Smith, J.A., Jones, R.C., Wilson, M.R., et al. (2009). How to style references. Journal of the American Editing Society, 4, 125-128.

You’ve probably noticed (if you’re still with me!) that all four of those citations contain the exact same information, so not one of them is “wrong.” They just look different. And my job is 90% about looks, i.e., style choices.

Of course, a lot of the time I get incomplete reference citations. The author will just leave off a year of publication, or page numbers, or the authors’ first and middle initials, or the article title, etc. (I’ve seen it all). When this happens, I turn to PubMed. More specifically, I usually turn to PubMed’s Single Citation Matcher. According to their homepage,”PubMed is a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine that includes over 18 million citations from MEDLINE and other life science journals for biomedical articles back to 1948.” Woo Hoo! Exciting stuff, eh?? But I would have a really hard time doing my job (or at least doing it well) if I didn’t have PubMed to fill in the blanks for me. It is probably the most-used bookmark on my browser!

There’s also the little matter of making sure that all of the references included in the ref. list are actually cited (or “called out”) in the text of the article (or book chapter), and vice versa. And oftentimes, the same reference appears in the list more than once… that’s a real pain. Then, the duplicate must be deleted, and the remaining refs. have to be renumbered both in the list and in the text. When this happens, I automatically reach for the ibuprofen.

There is so much more I could say about references (believe it or not!), but I think that’s enough for one blog post. I do, in fact, have a reference list to get back to this afternoon… lucky me!!

ETA: My editor friend (who, I realize, is probably the only person who actually reads these posts!) pointed out that I used the word “citation” incorrectly throughout this post. I told her I didn’t think anyone else would notice, but just in case you’re a stickler like she is… know that I’ve been schooled on what “citation” means… and, actually, that’s another post all in itself! References 102 perhaps…

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