For papers submitted to instructors or editors, style guidelines provide information that helps writers present information clearly, and in an organized, uniform manner.
Style guides typically address issues of basic grammar, accepted uses of punctuation, typical phrasings and abbreviations for a particular area of study - and suggest ways of organizing research results in a way that facilitates understanding and comparisons to other research. Style guides for manuscript preparation also provide physical guidelines for the manuscript to ensure that all papers have the same margins, are printed in easily readable fonts, and that identifying information for the manuscript is easily located. Some of the more detail oriented rules of manuscript style (including a header with either the author's name and the page number, for instance) seem like just plain common sense (if a stack of papers is dropped .... reassembling the manuscripts is possible). Others are set for the sake of uniformity (1 inch margins, for example, are pretty standard, and let instructors and editors editors gauge the length ). For research writers, the style guides provide useful information (typical abbreviations, for instance) that might be difficult to collect on one's own. For instructors and editors who must read many manuscripts, uniformity is a very real help.
For references, the rationale of uniformity makes even more sense.
Citations, whether they are prepared to document the sources consulted for course papers or articles submitted to scholarly journals, must follow certain rules of style and structure. These rules governing the required components of citations, the sequence in which these components are arranged, the print attributes applied to certain components, and the puncutation used to separate the components are generally published in "style guide" manuals, handbooks, and "Instructions to Authors."
Differing citation style guides are predominant in differing disciplines, different countries, and some are even specific to academic presses and journals. Humanities styles, for instance, tend to place the Author's name with the title, and furnish publication dates as the last component of the citation, while citation styles for scientific publications almost invariably begin with the Author's name and the publication date. A few of the more widely used of these guides in the US are: The Modern Language Association Style Guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. There are innumerable guides, however (see the bibliography for the full list) in many countries and areas of study. Many of these guides are now published on the web.
The rules put forward in each of these style manuals provide writers with a guide for determining the sequence in which components of the citation are to be presented, the print attributes to be used to format the text, and the punctuation to be used to separate different components. These rules are significant, because they are the "code" that helps readers identify the type of work cited (whether it is a an article, a book, etc.), and this information is necessary for the work to be relocated.
Consider, for instance, the following citations:
James, A. R. (1999). Reading and righting: Politicized research (3rd ed.)The sequence, formatting, and punctuation separating the different components of the citations helps readers identify the type of source work being referenced, and, hence, assists readers in relocating the source. Knowing the type of source work is essential to relocating a work, since differing types of source works are housed in different locations, and readers will need to use search strategies peculiar to that type of work to relocate it.
For example: we can deduce that the first citation is for a book, from the print attributes: titles of significant works or collections, such as treatises, books, monographs, journal series and the like, are accented in citations with italics or underscoring, and the year of publication is enclosed in parentheses. With the source work type identified, a reader can search a library system (or the Library of Congress catalog) for a book titled Reading and Righting by Arthur James, and find the third edition published by Preston in 1999. It is important to remember that publication information and edition descriptions help readers locate the exact edition of the source work, so that pinpoint cites to material printed on specific pages can be located on the same pages.
Citations of articles in periodicals contain the same "signals" as a sequence of a author name, year of publication, title, journal name, volume number, year and inclusive pages. The critical piece of information in each of these citations, then, is the sequence, and print attributes. In the second example, this sequence indicates that the work is published in a journal, and that readers will need to search in the serials or periodicals held by the library for the volume containing the cited material. This is actually quite important, since libraries do not list the contents of journals by author or article title.
It is of course true that not all of your readers will need to rush out and find the works you have used as sources. An important part of the purpose of citations in scholarly writing, however, is that your citations should make this possible for those who do wish to locate the work. Formatting your citations properly is a signficant part of accomplishing the objectives of citing your source works.