Category Archives: writing

Footnotes and citations should look different

Overall, I think physics is lucky to have its premier journals (Physical Review) be run by our own nonprofit professional society—APS. I think that explains, at least in part, why the arXiv has been so successful in physics and why similar efforts have floundered in other fields.

All that said, I have one bone to pick with the Physical Review journals: they insist that footnotes should be denoted in the same manner as citations [1,2]. Citations and footnotes serve very different purposes, and I both use and consume them in very different ways. When I’m reading a paper, I often read the footnotes, especially if I’m trying to totally understand a passage. I almost never look at the citations on my first reading. As a reader, I love footnotes! They’re a great way to add context, clarifications, parenthetical remarks, or definitions without interrupting the flow of your argument. Citations, on the other hand, are for backing up your claims or giving proper credit. If you mistake a footnote for a citation, you might miss some useful information or you might wrongly assume that the claim is backed up elsewhere in the literature [3]. Finally, I prefer footnotes to endnotes because footnotes keeps the information nearby, rather than forcing readers to flip pages back and forth.

In summary, Physical Review Letters and A, B, C and D: please follow Physical Review E‘s lead and allow separate footnotes!

Just one section called references:

[1] Waldron et al. “The Physical Review Style and Notation Guide” APS 2011 (a citation)
[2] At least for Physical Review B and Physical Review Letters, which are the PR journals I use. Phys Rev E does allow separate footnotes. (a footnote)
[3] For example, if you mistook [2] for a citation, you might not have noticed my caveat about which specific journals exhibit this problem.

Great resource: Beall’s list of predatory journals

Update 2020-01-24: Beall’s list has a new home: https://beallslist.net/

With your academic email address posted online, you’ll be flooded with sketchy offers inviting you to submit your manuscript to open-access journals with legitimate sounding names like “British Journal of Science” or “Cancer Research Frontiers”. These predatory journals typically do little or no peer review. One pair of scientists was even able to get a paper containing only the repeated text “Get me off your f___ing mailing list” published in the predatory International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology.

The proliferation of these journals is perhaps the chief disadvantage of the move towards open access since, in the digital age, setting up a website is nearly free, and open access journals need not convince any librarians to pay for subscriptions to make money. Instead these ‘journals’ charge huge fees to publish and conduct shoddy peer review or none at all. Some are less directly predatory, but are instead “vanity press” where they get you to pay a fee to publish your thesis with them with little editing or review.

You might also find yourself invited by [person you’ve never met/heard of] to give a talk at [prestigious conference you’ve never heard of] organized by [not a university or professional society]. When you go to register, you’ll find that it’s bizarrely expensive. I think that at least sometimes conferences are real, but like the predatory journals, they are just doing it for a profit.

At least in the case of the predatory journals, Beall’s List of Predatory Journals and Publishers (now located here)provides a great way to check if the journal is a known scam so you can end that email to your spam folder without a tinge of fear that you’re throwing away a legitimate offer. Two notes of caution here: (1) obviously just because it isn’t on the list doesn’t mean everything is above board, so still do your due diligence and (2) on the Beall’s List, you have to click through publishers, standalone journals and vanity press and search each separately.