Why learning APA style is useful for students – a reply to Richard Morey
In his Mindwise blog post, Richard Morey argues that learning APA style is a waste of time. He argues that format and style of documents should be done by computer software, as we no longer live in 1950 but in the 21st century.
“Does this mean that we can remove learning APA style from our curriculum? Let me explain why I think the answer is ‘no’.”
First of all, learning a formatting style serves an educational purpose for students. By learning and practicing a specific format, the students learn that guidelines should be consulted when writing a report. I call it ‘a specific format’ because it does not per definition have to be the APA format. For references, various different styles are available. However, in Psychology, the APA format is the most widely used style for references and the majority of Psychology journals also require APA style for manuscripts. It is therefore a straightforward choice to include the APA style in our curriculum.
Should kids not learn arithmetics because calculators exist?
But why is it important that students learn and practice a specific format if software can do it for them? In my view this argument is like claiming that kids don’t need to learn arithmetic because calculators exist. Why don’t we give all first graders a calculator? Problem solved, teachers can go home. Doesn’t this sound ridiculous? Obviously, for kids it is important to understand the numbers and their logic to get a deep understanding of the matter. Similarly, learning and practicing a specific format style teaches students the elements of a style and their logic. For example, it fosters knowledge on which parts of a reference identify which type of information, how a reference to a book can be distinguished from a reference to a journal article, where to place a reference in the text, how to effectively find information in an article, and so on. For graduated researchers this knowledge may be more than obvious, but for first-year psychology students who have just left high school it is just not.
Of course, once this knowledge and skills are established, there is nothing wrong with using computer software to format your paper. I use this software myself and the psychology library even organizes regular courses for students on how to use reference managing software (see My University, search for “RefWorks”). I encourage my Bachelor thesis students to follow these workshops.
APA style is much more than a formatting style
Until now I have only talked about the format of references and text, however the APA style is much more than just text formatting. Although it started out as a simple set of style rules in 1929 (Sigal & Pettit, 2012), it can now be regarded as “an authoritative source on all aspects of scholarly writing, from the ethics of duplicate publication to the word choice that best reduces bias in language” (p. 3, American Psychological Association, 2009). It thus provides guidance on ethics and avoiding bias in publishing, manuscript structure and content, clear and concise writing, writing style, displaying results, reference citation, and the publication process. The aim of these guidelines is to standardize science communication and increase trust in the reliability of publications among professionals. Embedding APA style in the curriculum guides students in developing an ethical conscious, a critical attitude and an academic writing style.
The downside of such guidelines is that it restricts researchers in their format and personal style, and that is exactly what bothers some researchers. They think the guidelines propose a too stringent structure. This would stifle the researcher’s creativity and engagement in content, make them “automata” checking off requirements, and this would cause teaching to be obsessed with citation style. I wonder what alternatives these sceptics would prefer. They would not want to be a journal editor themselves when no guidelines would be available. In the early days of psychology, when no guidelines were available, editors had a tough job with information overload in articles that were often verbose and mediocre (Sigal & Pettit, 2012). Furthermore, I doubt whether the sceptics are truly “APA-free”, even if they do not own an APA manual like Richard , because APA style is so hard-wired in psychological communications. I would of course be happy to hear of less stringent alternatives to the APA manual. Wikipedia tells me about other style guides, such as CMOS, Turabian, AMA, and CSE, but perhaps the sceptics can tell me more about them based on more reliable sources (citations in APA style please ;-).
APA style references (formatted by hand)
American Psychological Association (2010). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sigal, M. J. & Pettit, M. (2012). Information overload, professionalization, and the origins of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Review of General Psychology, 16 (4), 357-363. doi:10.1037/a0028531
Wikipedia authors (2014). Style guide. Wikipedia – The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Style_guide