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Citation systems in the biosciences: A history, classification and descriptive terminology

R.B. Williams (Tring, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 18 October 2011




Several bibliographical citation systems are in regular use in scholarly literature, associated with various intellectual disciplines. The aim of this paper is to document an analysis of their designs in the biosciences in order to construct a classification and to assess their comparative effectiveness for information transfer.


A historical survey of communications between scholars, including the reasons why authors cite others' works, was completed. The development of citation systems, specifically the Harvard system and various numeric systems, was traced, following which a universal classification with a new descriptive terminology was constructed.


Citation systems are defined herein as direct (with citation and reference together in the text) or indirect (with citation within the text, and reference outside the text). Direct systems may be described as implicit (the Linnaean style with abbreviated, undated, conceptual reference) or explicit (with full, dated, bibliographical reference). All indirect systems are explicit: the text citation (the referens) may be alphabetic, symbolic, numeric or alphanumeric and the reference (the referendum) may be a marginal note, footnote or end reference. A survey of citation systems in 101 bioscience journals is presented. Within indirect systems, most biomedical journals use a numeric system, but most veterinary, zoological and general biological journals use the Harvard system, which is considered herein to be the most effective for information transfer.


No philosophical analysis of citation systems appears to have been carried out before. Based upon historical, conceptual and logical aspects, a robust universal classification with a new descriptive terminology is presented to facilitate the unambiguous discussion of the principles and designs of citation systems. The classification and terminology are applicable to citation systems in any discipline.



Williams, R.B. (2011), "Citation systems in the biosciences: A history, classification and descriptive terminology", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 67 No. 6, pp. 995-1014.



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