Academic Citation: Footnotes, Endnotes, Parenthetical

Aaron Haspel has a longish essay railing against the use of endnote — and especially poorly formatted endnotes — in serious books, arguing for the revival of footnotes in most cases. Kieran Healy takes up the cause as well, giving parenthetical citations a few good licks.

I share these biases as well, thinking of both non-footnote styles as a holdover from the days of typewriters that serve no purpose in an age of personal computers. Then again, I like to refer to notes as I’m reading because they give substantial insights and context. Indeed, footnotes can sometimes reveal obvious flaws that would likely be unrevealed in endnotes, especially with matters of timing.

Still, my suspicion is that few people bother to read the notes and most would therefore find them distracting if they were right on the page.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I like parenthetical notation for author and page numbers (i.e., very basic source information) and I like footnotes for expansion and side discussion. I suppose a lot of it is a matter of taste. I dislike endnotes, because I don’t like having to flip to the back of the book or the chapter to find the
    information in the note.

    I like the combo of parenthetical and footnotes because the parenthetical citation lets me know as I am reading basically where the information came from and then a footnote lets me know that there is additional info below. If every citations is a footnote, having to look down at the bottom of the page for Smith, 23 is a waste of time and breaks up the reading. I can easily assimilate and dismiss, if needed, the basic citation.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I personally prefer footnotes; will be moderately happy with chapter end-notes; and will take book end-notes if that’s all that’s on offer.

    The UK academy strongly prefers parenthetical notes, though. So if it’s a British book, there’s just no getting around the interruptions.

    I suspect that end-notes have become popular because they’re so much easier to implement in modern word processing programs. They lead to cleaner and easier pagination of the main text and can be generated almost instantly once the text is completed. If there are substantial edits, then it still only takes a click or two to get the new end-notes pages all properly formatted.

    With footnotes, you’re always having to deal with odd and ugly page breaks after a major edit.

  3. M. Murcek says:

    Of course, if the text was being delivered digitally, instead of on a printed page, it could probably provide the option of foot or end notes at the user’s discretion…

  4. Anderson says:

    People who don’t read footnotes aren’t “distracted” by them; they don’t read them.

    Compare people who don’t read reduced-type blockquotes; those aren’t a distraction.

  5. Perhaps it’s due to growing up with parenthetical style, but I’m with Steven: author, year, and page can go inline, but anything more complex should be a footnote (not an endnote – blech). I think endnotes and “plates” (separate pages for tables and graphics, another blech) largely persist for the convenience of journal and book publishers; WYSIWYG word processing software like Word doesn’t accommodate going from “publisher-ready” to “reader-friendly” and back very well, which is one big reason for the popularity of LaTeX and friends among academics.

    In an online format, I’d prefer footnotes to be hover-over pop-ups and citations to be hyperlinks.

  6. Triumph says:

    Citations are just a way for liberal professors to avoid accountability.

  7. Anderson says:

    This issue comes up in legal writing. Bryan Garner, the very smart guru of legal usage, favors putting all citations in footnotes, against the Bluebook rule of a citation’s following the sentence in question.

    The argument for in-text citation, which I agree with, is that an assertion is often only as good as its source, and that deflecting citations to the foot of the page seems to encourage the court to place less emphasis on the cited authority’s weight and nature.

    Similarly, I delight in footnotes that discuss how hard a point is to nail down, or that recite arguments pro and con. Walter Isaacson’s bio of Einstein, which I’m reading now, has lots of endnotes like that, and to me it’s unfortunate that seemingly factual assertions in the text are segregated from the issues raised in the notes.

    Some people are bored by such things, but I don’t think those are people worth catering to. Not all books are storybooks. An intelligent reader should be up to evaluating the sources and issues behind the text.