Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How to cite e-books?

Since I'm living in a different country that I work, I've ended up using lots and lots of time in airports and planes. As an effect of this I'm trying to get as much of my research material as possible in digital format. This also goes for books. The Kindle app is my new friend. It keeps my suitcase within cabin luggage limits.

Today I've encountered for the first time the problem of how to cite E-books in an academic text. E-books are still a fairly new technology, and they are treated by both publishers and many readers as "second grade" editions. I guess this will change with time, but for now we have to deal with inconveniences as the lack of proper page numbering, lack of stable "edition markers" and so on. And not to forget - tons of hyphenation errors, bad quality images and other oddities. This goes even for big publishers like Oxford University Press.

Anyways, the point is - how to cite? I found a fairly good introduction to the problem on the APA blog, and on Booksprung: http://booksprung.com/how-to-cite-a-kindle-ebook.

The first principle is of course - always always cite the edition that you are actually using. Don't try to be fancy cite original editions, first printings etc. If there are things to be commented, like "Cage published this text originally in 1939, but I'm quoting it from the 2011 edition of Silence," put that in a footnote. If you desperately want to cite the 1939 version, the least thing you have to do is to consult a pdf of the original article.

You need to clarify which edition of the text you are using, and where you got it from. For e-books you should cite like you do with websites. From what I get from the APA-blog, you can skip the retrieved date. The book might get updated anyway. The funny thing though is that APA wants us to include what "e-reader book type" is being used. This is to my knowledge unnecessary, since the file doesn't differ significantly from device to device. In my case the citation then looks something like this:
Taruskin, Richard (2010). Music in the late twentieth century. Oxford, Oxford University Press. Kindle edition, retrieved from Amazon.com. 
It's a bit long, it doesn't take updates of the file into consideration, but I think it works.

So far, so good. Then comes the problem with page-numbers. As I see it, there are three possible strategies:

  • Use the e-book location number. The location number is static, and does not differ from device to device (I read my books both on my Samsung phone and my iPad) or with the size of text. But it is not giving any indication to what page this is in the printed version of the book, so if the reader wants to trace the paragraph you are citing s/he will then need to get the kindle edition of the book. APA actually warns us against using location numbers, stating that:
"Kindle "location numbers," however, should not be used in citations because they have limited retrievability"
  • Name the major sections (i.e.: "Chapter 1, Section 2, para. 5"). This is actually recommended by APA. The problem is of course that citing then gets time consuming, and that the citations get crumbsome. And what then about long chapters with no sections? "Chapter 2, para. 455" is not very helpful.
  • Find the page-number in the printed version by checking in the previews on Amazon or Google books. This is definitely possible, but also makes citing time consuming and it goes against the first principle mentioned over, that you should always cite the source that you actually use. 
None of this is really sufficient, and I'm starting to suspect that I wasted an hour of my workday trying to figure this out instead on writing on my text. 
Supposedly Kindle has recently come up with "real" page numbers in newer books, but so far I haven't seen this in use. 

Any comments and insights on the matter will be appreciated. 


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