Ask TWEED: Is Citing Online Journal Databases Necessary?

Dear TWEED Editing:

I have a question for you, Mistress Tweed. My students informed me recently that MLA requires that bibliographic citations obtained through a database require that the database be included in the citation. So their citations end up looking like this:

DeRogatis, Amy. “Born again is a sexual term”: demons, STDs, and God’s healing sperm.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77.2 (2009): 275-302. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2010.

Is this legit?

—S. M.

Well, TWEEDLE, I think it’s more than legit: your students are covering all of their bases. If a student uses an academic database for full-text content, quoting and paraphrasing from that digital version, then it is appropriate to include the extra information.

Why would this additional location information be necessary? The MLA Handbook explains, “In some databases, typographic features and even the pagination found in print versions may be altered or lost. Sometimes copyrighted third-party materials (illustrations or text) in a print version may have been eliminated because permission for the electronic publication could not be cleared. Web presentations of periodicals may include enhancements, such as hypertextual links, sound recordings, and film clips, that are not present in their print counterparts.” (I retrieved that from 5.6.4, p. 192, of the seventh edition.) Chicago and APA basically concur.

However, the formatting of the example you give needs some tweaking. The example looks indeed like it came right from the citation function within ATLA (the religious studies database) directly, but in this case at least it seems that ATLA has improperly formatted the MLA citation to its own content. This is an example of the limitations of using technology to do one’s sources: however helpful some software may be, it is no substitute for familiarity with documentation paradigms and a keen eye.

Chiefly, the difference between ATLA’s supplied MLA citation (the one that you have replicated in your question) is capitalization style. MLA prefers headline-style capitalization for journal article titles. (What ATLA provides is sentence-style capitalization, a hallmark of APA style, for example.) Here is the citation, modified to better conform to MLA’s stated paradigm:

DeRogatis, Amy. “Born Again is a Sexual Term”: Demons, STDs, and God’s Healing Sperm.” Journal of the American Academy of ReligionATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2010. 77.2 (2009): 275–302.

These online services of course want to be credited, and there is the matter of potentially meaning-bearing differences between print and online versions. On the other hand—and I really shouldn’t say this—if a works-cited entry is complete save for the database information, that’s certainly enough for a reader to locate the material. And that’s the main point of documentation. As a teacher of undergraduates not writing for publication, you can choose how strict you want to be regarding conformity to these protocols.

I guess this younger generation of students and scholars is schooling those of us for whom research used to mean digging for dusty periodicals in the library basement! I wonder how many prominent scholars really do cop to their use of journal databases in their works cited lists.

Now, if a student uses an online database to find source but then actually hunts down the print version of that source in the library, then the extra database information is neither required nor appropriate. Don’t let your overachieving students get too zealous!

~

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