APA Style vs IEEE Style: Fight!

There is much that irks me in academia. The way that disciplines are almost randomly assigned to artium, scientiae, or legum, without any reference to their means of verification or falsification. Or, for that matter, the Dewey (or Universal) Decimal Classification for libraries, which, in its insanity, places computer applications in the same category as "Fundamentals of knowledge and culture" and "Propaedeutics". One could also describe ask why the value "Dead languages of unknown affiliation" also belongs with "Caucasian languages". I suppose most of them are "near dead", right?

Then there is the eye-watering level of digital illiteracy among academics, researchers, students, and professional staff. It is little wonder that closed-knowledge academic journals and proprietary software companies fleece the university sheep and make out like bandits. They don't even realise that they've been robbed, such is the practical ignorance of the lofty principles that they espouse. Ever received a document in a proprietary format explaining how important it is to make content accessible for the visually impaired? Yeah, it's like that all the time, a combination of hypocrisy combined with willful ignorance.

But I reserve a special spot in my hell for referencing systems. On the very basic level, a reference is a relationship where one object designates or links to another. A reference in an essay should link to some more elaborate reference in the text (whether by footnote, endnote, bibliography, hyperlink, etc), and that reference should be referred to the actual publication. Really, that's all that should be necessary. When I first offered an opinion on this subject, a computer science graduate noted that in their discipline it was not unusual for academics not to care about the referencing style, "as long as I can find the source". Certainly, consistency in single paper is better than inconsistency in that regard (following the principles of simplicity, clarity and frugality, but on the other end of the scale (pun not intended), there are poisonous snakes in many universities.

Minimal requirements and poisonous snakes aside, the good people at the Online Writing Lab at Perdue University have provided a summary of different referencing styles, even with an engine to generate the appropriate reference for APA and MLA, as much as that is possible. Using these suggestions and original sources I will engage in a comparison between the APA and IEEE styles. Giving away the conclusion in advance, despite my background in the social sciences, I prefer the IEEE style for reasons that will become evident.


Effectiveness is a signal-to-noise ratio, the ability to provide content with frugality. "Provide" is an important verb here because it suggests the human actor, which of course psychologists would be remarkably aware of. It is a pity that they haven't taken this into account. Perhaps this is more representative of their own service fees. It serves little purpose seeking to provide a comprehensive taxonomy (as improbable as that is) if most of the text is based on developing special rules for unusual corner-cases, rather than providing basic principles from which effective elaborations can occur.

This is a problem with APA. The seventh edition weighs in at 427 pages, a terrifying increase from the 272 pages of the sixth edition, which was bad enough. To suggest that researchers must be familiar with this mighty tome in addition to their domain specialisation is, frankly, bordering on the offensively insane in their expectations that they wish to lump onto others. Have they even thought about what it must be like being an APA style guide expert? They'd be a real hit at parties! They probably have special parties of their own where they engage in fights over whether in-text citations should be author (date) or (author, date). For what it's worth, this actually is an on-going debate in APA.

In comparison, the IEEE reference guide is a mere twenty pages with the same again for abbreviations and a list of publishers. In addition, to make the comparison equivalent, there is an IEEE style manual which twenty-three pages. Combined, these cover pretty much the same content as the APA's Publication Manual, except it does so with a vastly reduced page count.

The APA seems to be infected by some version of Parkinson's Law, based on the discovery that the Colonial Office of the British Empire expanded whist the Empire itself declined; leading to a situation where it had the greatest number of staff when it was folded into the Foreign Office due to a lack of colonies to administer. One would like to think that the increase in page count has occurred to an equivalent changed in a potential medium. Even at glance, however, this is not the case. Using an observation from Parkinson, it would seem that the page count of the APA Manual depends entirely on the number of bureaucrats promoting the Manual, which will expand by approximately 5% per annum, regardless of the work that needs to be done.


There absolutely can be no doubt of the work that the APA has done in reducing bias in language. Their Guidelines for nonsexist language in APA journals remains one of the most significant publications of its sort, and of course that original set of guidelines has been updated to become an entire chapter in the 7th edition and the scope expanded to include age, disability, gender, participation in research, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and intersectionality, etc.

Despite these good intentions, the citation method of the APA is biased. Psychologists, of all people, would know quite well that the vast majority of people will assign agreement or disagreement from a source, viscerally, rather than form a rational opinion based on the content. By default, our beliefs come from emotional responses, not the critical reasoning faculties of the recently evolved parts of the brain. Given that social norms are usually based on herd-loyalty towards people rather than facts it understandable, rather than acceptable, that APA requires an (author, date) inline citation method. For their own part, IEEE doesn't care who wrote a fact, as long as you can check it. Their citation method simply will use a numerical reference (e.g., [1]).

The problem with the APA method is that it does lead to biased judgments, especially on normative considerations. Consider the following, first in IEEE style and then in APA style:

"An absolute and permanent ban on vivisection is not only a necessary law to protect animals and to show sympathy with their pain, but it is also a law for humanity itself."[1]

Well, that sounds humane enough, doesn't it? Does your opinion change when the author is cited?

"An absolute and permanent ban on vivisection is not only a necessary law to protect animals and to show sympathy with their pain, but it is also a law for humanity itself." (Göring, 1933).

Does it make a difference? Rationally, it shouldn't. The quote is an accurate statement of a remark that was made. But on a visceral level, it probably does make a difference. Most people with a bit of moral cognition probably don't want be associated with Göring regardless of their view on vivisection and, of course, people will play on that. Quoting a Nazi on a normative position generates an emotional response because of other normative positions carried out by the Nazis.

The use of inline author citation encourages such emotional reactions. Removing the named author citation reduces bias and asks the reader to evaluate a statement on its own merit. The IEEE probably didn't do that on purpose. But the effect is that propositions are not initially coloured by the author's name.

Posthumous Publications

The inline citation method of IEEE provides no information about the author, publication, or date. That means if a bold conjecture is asserted then it is up to the reader to check the quality of the reference. In contrast, the APA provides some of those details in the inline citation. But the combination is just weird; author and publisher's publication date. The combination means that the reader is simultaneously unaware of when the author made the remark, thus losing the historical context of the meaning of the words, or who determined that the author's remarks were worthy of publication. To be fair, I don't really care about the latter, especially not in these days where my favourite publications are electronic media and my favourite "publisher" is Library Genesis. But that combination; every time I see something like (Plato, 2014) part of my soul dies, pun intended. Poor Plato died over two thousand years ago.

Again, I find that the IEEE method is more sound. There is really no need to know inline who is being referenced or when the publication occurred, and certainly not in the combination required by APA. Where the author is relevant the author can be mentioned in the body of the text, and likewise for publications, such as a comparison between two translations.

Words, Words, Words: A Parting Shot

Most sound academics don't really care what referencing style one uses, as long as one is consistent. After all, it really is only the pettiest individuals, the "poisonous snakes", who slavishly adhere to someone else's style over their own lack of substance. Being a question of style, the problems I have noted with APA are really a matter of personal taste. The complexity of APA is something I dislike, and others might actually delight in the minutiae; sick, perverted, deviants, I tell you. It is possible as well to overlook the potential of name-based bias and perhaps even force one's self to overcome any unconscious biases that might otherwise creep in.

All this aside, it is perhaps worth noting that almost nobody follows the rules for style guides, including academics who have their own arbitrary insistence on using a particular system. I refer in particular to word count. As a veteran of several universities (Murdoch, Chifley, Salford, LSE-UoL, Otago, Melbourne, etc), I have had to note that everyone has their own way of conducting a word count in APA, which is fairly important because academics get grumpy if you exceed or fail to meet a word count by a certain percentage. Some include in-text citations, others don't. Some include the bibliography, others don't, and so forth. Yet the official rule from the APA is everything counts in the word count. A rule that is not used by any academic I've encountered and, for those who know how such systems work, will vary by the application's own method of counting words.

In summary, APA is poison, and whilst I am engaging in obvious hyperbole to say its advocates ought to be executed (I generally oppose the death penalty), it probably should be avoided in favour of a more rational referencing style. I do wonder, in moments of self-reflection, that my own journey from normative to factual academic content has influenced this view. So to conclude on a normative position, whilst the image meme is funny, the person himself is a pretty awful human being. This is the one and only time I'll be giving him any oxygen.