Footnotes

Some journals in some disciplines use footnotes as well as references. Footnotes are most commonly found in journals in the humanities and least in journals in the sciences, with social science journals somewhere in between. Footnotes serve the same purposes as references, as outlined by Robillard in the previous chapter (p. 60) perhaps more clearly. The differences are that they are sometimes more extensive than references, often containing more exposition, and they usually appear, as their name suggests, at the foot of the page. However, it is also common to find such notes at the end of a chapter, or even grouped chapter by chapter at the end of a book.

The use of footnotes has an ancient pedigree. Slomanson (1987) dates the first use of the term to 1822, but cites the use of footnotes occurring shortly after 1066. Grafton (1997) is more cautious. He writes, 'Scholars have placed the birth of the footnote in the twelfth century, the seventeenth, the eighteenth, and the nineteenth - never without good reason' (p. viii). Be that as it may, what appears to happen with many academic journals is that footnotes first appear in their early history, but that these are then replaced with numbered references, before finally a name(date) system takes over (as described in the previous chapter).

The literature on writers' and readers' attitudes to footnotes is long on anecdote and assertion, but short on evidence (Hartley, 1999). Two common assertions are:

(i) that footnotes seem irresistible, and that they can thus distract the reader;1 and

(ii) that it is sometimes difficult to find your place back in the main text to continue reading when you have moved away to read the footnote.

In order to obtain some data on feelings such as these, I once gave a questionnaire on the topic to approximately fifty academics whose disciplinary

1 See what I mean journals typically used footnotes (e.g. law, history, education and English and modern languages), and to another fifty whose disciplinary journals typically did not (e.g. medicine, physics and psychology). The questionnaire asked these academics about:

1 their attitudes to footnotes generally;

2 their attitudes to footnotes being placed at the ends of individual chapters as opposed to the end of a book; and

3 their preferences for notes or references being placed at the ends of individual chapters in a book rather than at the end of the book (or vice versa) when the chapters were written:

(b) by different authors.

The results showed that both groups of academics responded positively to footnotes — that is, they did not find them irritating. However, as might be anticipated, the members of the 'footnotes' group were significantly more positive towards footnotes than were the members of the 'no-footnotes' group. The 'footnotes' group claimed that they had significantly less difficulty in returning to where they were on the page after reading a footnote, and that footnotes could be less easily ignored than did the 'no-footnotes' group. However, the respondents in both groups agreed that:

1 notes at the ends of chapters or books were more irritating than notes at the foot of the page;

2 it was difficult to find your way back to where you originally were after reading a note at the end of a chapter or a book, as opposed to a note at the foot of the page; and

3 it was better to have notes or references at the end of each chapter (as here) rather than at the end of the book, especially when the chapters were written by different authors.

These findings suggest that readers attach greater significance to the value of footnotes and endnotes if they are used to reading them in their books and journals. They thus form an accepted way of conveying additional information within certain disciplines. However, for a more general audience, it might be best to avoid them.2

2 Caught you again?

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