In Praise of the Bluebook

by Kevin Jon Heller

I realize that Bluebook bashing is something of a varsity sport among legal academics. And yes, much of the Bluebook’s arcana is profoundly annoying. But you know what? I’ll take that arcana over social science citation any day. I’ve been writing another “cognitive psychology of [insert concept here]” essay — mens rea, this time — and reading articles in psychology journals makes me want to kill myself. In no particular order:

1. Inserting references in the middle of a sentence makes the sentence impossible to read and is quite simply stupid. Here is an example of a sentence I actually quote in my essay:

Social projection affects predictions of how others see us (Felson, 1993; Kenny & DePaulo, 1993), predictions of how others see themselves (Krueger, 1998b; Krueger, Ham, & Linford, 1996), social stereotyping (Krueger, 1996a), voting behavior and political expectations (Granberg & Brent, 1983; Quattrone & Tversky, 1984; Regan & Kilduff, 1988), choices in social dilemmas (Messe & Sivacek, 1979; Orbell & Dawes, 1991), communication (Keysar, Barr, Balin, & Brauner, 2000; Nickerson, 1999), consumer behavior (West, 1996), and economic forecasts (Kahneman & Snell, 1992). Although the strength of projection varies, no particular person characteristic or type of judgment item consistently fails to show projection. People project even when they are asked not to or when they receive feedback on the accuracy of their predictions (Krueger & Clement, 1994); they project regardless of their level of cognitive busyness (Krueger & Stanke, 2001) and regardless of information they have about other individuals (Alicke & Largo, 1995; Clement & Krueger, 2000; Kenny & Acitelli, 2001; Schul & Vinokur, 2000).

2. Endnotes are bad. Yeah, I groan when I see a page that contains two lines of text and 30 lines of footnotes. But it’s still better than having to mark my place in an article, find the bibliography, and scan an endless list of references listed in 9-pt. font.

3. Citing articles as 2000a, 2000b, and 2000c is ridiculous. Do I really need to waste my time (1) finding the right group of authors in the long list — is it Finkel? Finkel and Groscup? Finkel et al.? — and (2) searching within the right group for the right year and article? Here’s a hint: no.

4. Signals! Again, yes the Bluebook is a pain: see, see, e.g., see also, cf., see generally. I don’t understand them either. But at least the Bluebook tries. Social science citations? Not so much. They just sit there doing nothing. Maybe the cited work makes the point directly, maybe it doesn’t. That’s for the cite to know and you to find out.

5. Page numbers! Okay, I lied: there is a particular order. I saved the absolutely completely utterly worst thing about social science citations for last. For the love of God, give me a page number with the cite — and not just when you quote an article directly. (Itself a spotty practice.) Yeah, social science articles are not as long as law-review articles. Yeah, I can save all my sources as PDFs and search them for particular words. But really, what’s easier: that, or adding a page number to the cite? I think you know the answer.

Here endeth the rant. Bluebook editors, I’ll never bad-mouth you again.

6 Responses

  1. I agree on the superiority of law citations over other social sciences, however I find it difficult to be quite as enthusiastic about Bluebook as you…all those capital letters. Give me OSCOLA anyday!

  2. Kevin,

    I’ll have to agree with fdelondras there. It’s one thing to compare the Bluebook with social science citations, but quite another to actually sing its praises. The latter would in fairness require comparison with other legal citation systems, such as OSCOLA, as apparently used by the ICLQ, or the OUP house style as applied by the EJIL. [I might add here that the ICLQ doesn't seem to mind too much about the form of citations, so long as they are all understandable. They all are in the ICLQ, but by the look of things, they're not uniform. How is that a bad thing?]

    However, on the first issue, the inferiority of social science citations, I’m all on your side. Certainly for purposes of legal writing, it is nonsense to put all citations in the text. The same goes for a great deal of social science work, such as the horrible extract you quote in the post, but at least many in the social science give relatively little citations anyway, so the inferior system doesn’t hurt as much. That’s not how lawyers are brought up to work; I guess we tend to give references for nearly everything, because of the need not only to be good honest academics, but also to cite authority every now and again.

    Curiously, almost all courts I know (with the one exception of Lord Justice Sedley in the English Court of Appeal) put their references and full citations in the text, not into footnotes. I suppose that’s because the details of authority are so very important in their work.

    I have, however, heard of lawyers preferring the social sciences approach (in part). One American lawyer and a very social sciences-minded British lawyer have told me they find it distracting to see (many) footnote numbers in the text. The first would draw from that that references should be put in the text, in parentheses, the second would have preferred fewer citations. I don’t find footnotes remotely distracting (unless they contain too much by way of explanation), so I disagree with both.

  3. Kevin,

    I think the problem with Bluebook is not its use of footnotes, signals, or page numbers. I think many people who have done both that and social sciences (I have) will agree that Law Review citation system is much, much better!

    However, I think the criticism of Bluebook comes from its sometimes weird and other times inconsistent rules. Having used both ALWD and Bluebook, I can say that ALWD is by far easier to navigate and to use than Bluebook.

    That being said, I think Bluebook is not that bad once you get to know it. It’s just really hard to get adjusted to at the very beginning or after you haven’t done it for a number of years.

  4. I think that some of your criticism of social science citation is true only of some journals and authors. For example, nothing prevents the inclusion of page numbers in social science style citations, e.g. Posner (2004;27-29). Similarly, while I agree that endnotes are an inexcusable pain the neck, social science style citation is perfectly compatible with the use of footnotes. Your complaint seems actually to be about having to look for the bibliography at the end, but that isn’t really that hard, and you don’t have to do it that often.

  5. I started preferring footnotes over endnotes in high school and never looked back. I do not recall any of my social science professors in college (history, polisci) mandating endnotes over footnotes. So I think it’s entirely possible to go through a social science education without dealing with endnotes/in-text cites. Like Kevin and Tobias say though, it’s one thing to hold the Bluebook up to social science citation and another to actually call the Bluebook definitively better than anything else out there.

  6. Oops, that’s fdelondras and Tobias, sorry.

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