So many citation styles

One of the most common reference questions I hear is “How do I cite this?”  Like most academic libraries, mine provides citation help on our website. Even with online tools and, in the most recent edition of Word, a click of the “References” ribbon at their fingertips, students are often unsure.

As I go over what information is included in a citation, where to find it, which style to use, and how to format it, students often ask why it’s so complicated. Which made me wonder, why are there so many styles? The humanities use MLA and Chicago, and the sciences have APA and  several more. Within styles, why are there different citation formats (mainly parenthetical and documentary, according to Plagiarism.org)?

Kerry Creelman, a librarian at University of Houston, explains that different academic disciplines place higher value on particular information about sources, which is reflected in the style formats.  Yale College Writing Center concurs but points out that even within the same field,  journals may require different citation styles.

Maybe there isn’t a compelling argument against a universal citation style.  In-text citations in the three main styles all include the author. APA also requires the publication year and page number, MLA only the page number, and Chicago only the year. Couldn’t a universal style make the source clear? Bibliographies (also known as works cited or reference lists), require similar but not identical information across styles and could easily be standardized.

Besides streamlining the research and writing process, universal citation would make it easier to cite materials across disciplines. And it would save students and researchers time and frustration. I suppose it would reduce my reference desk stats,  but I could live with that. What am I missing? Is there a good reason to have so many citation styles?