Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Harvard Reference System and citing tweets

Earlier this year The Modern Language Association (MLA) decided to devise a standard format to assist students and researchers who liked to cite data found on Twitter. Given that Twitter is increasingly becoming a place in which news can break, frequently ahead of mainstream channels, then it makes perfect sense to attempt to accommodate this platform. The MLA system works well with how Twitter functions.

They advise researchers that citation should being the entry in the works cited list (aka the bibliography) with the author's real name followed by the Twitter user name in parentheses. When only the user name is known, default to that. What should follow this is the entire text from the tween in quotation marks. Spelling mistakes and capitalisation should remain exact (don't change anything!). Finally, the entry should include the date and time of the message and the medium of the publication (in this case, Tweet). Here's an example:
Jewitt, Rob (@rob_jewitt). "The problem with nerd politics gu.com/p/37hyb" 14 May 2012, 8:55pm. Tweet 
If citing the tweet in the body of a paper the MLA recommends it is cited in its entirety.

Now this might seem fairly straightforwards but I do find it curious that the MLA ignores the unique URL provided by a tweet. After all, every status posted has it's own page. The above example could easily be supplemented by the link: http://twitter.com/#!/rob_jewitt/status/202124949522104322. I'd have thought that this would have been essential given that the exact timings on Twitter are subject to the timezone of the reader rather than the poster, meaning errors can occur.

The Harvard Reference system and web sources

At the time of writing there is no formal guidance for how to cite a tweet within the structure of the Harvard Reference (HR) system , but it should be possible to work within the current guidance dealing with websites and adapt the MLA system to come up with a solution. There are even automated tools like the CiteThisForMe page that attempt to auto format sources but it struggles with Twitter.

Students at Sunderland are encouraged to use the HR system as outlined by the resources over on the University Library Services site (direct link to "Cite them right" guide).

The common approach to citing an electronic source, like a website is to include the following info in this order:

  • Author
  • Year that the site was published/last updated (in parentheses)
  • Title of Internet site (in italics)
  • Available at: URL
  • (Accessed: date)
There may be instances where the author is not known but the page includes a title, so that should be used instead. There may even be instances where neither of these can be identified, meaning that the only information that can be provided is the page URL. As you can see, this is less than ideal. Many sites and blogs are happy to identify an author or contributor, so where these are provided then they should be used accordingly. There are also extra fields (highlighted) to deal with:
  • Author of message
  • Year that the site was published/last updated (in parentheses)
  • Title of message (in quotation marks)
  • Title of Internet site (in italics)
  • Day / month of posted message
  • Available at: URL
  • (Accessed: date)
So, following these rules,  this authored Lifehacker article should look something like this:
Thorin Klosowski (2012) 'Living in Public: What Happens When You Throw Privacy Out The Window', Lifehacker, 26 April. Available at http://lifehacker.com/5905347/living-in-public-what-happens-when-you-throw-privacy-out-the-window (Accessed: 15 May 2012)
Citing a tweet in the Harvard Reference system

By drawing on the guidance for citing blogs, then it's possible to come up with some easy to follow rules for citing Twitter. It is a micro-blogging service after all. The following example will use the tweet I employed in the MLA example above coupled with the HR advice for citing blogs. I propose the following method:
  • Author of message (Twitter user name in parentheses)
  • Year that the status was published (in parentheses)
  • Full message (in quotation marks)
  • Title of Internet site (in italics)
  • Day / month / time of posted message
  • Available at: URL
  • (Accessed: date)
The aforementioned tweet should look something like this in the bibliography:
Rob Jewitt (@rob_jewitt) (2012), "The problem with nerd politics gu.com/p/37hyb", Twitter, 14 May 2012, 8:55pm. Available at http://twitter.com/#!/rob_jewitt/status/202124949522104322 (Accessed: 15 May 2012)
It might look a little cumbersome but it has the advantage over the MLA system in that it is more accurate and helpful for anyone else who might want to refer to the same message, or even check its veracity. This is by no means a definitive solution but it is an attempt to be consistent. Comments and feedback welcome

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