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Review of the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing.


Out With the Old, In With the New

The Modern Language Association of America will release the third edition of its MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing this fall. It is important to remember that this edition and the revisions it presents are aimed at a professional and graduate student audience. (The next edition of MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, the guide for undergraduates, is due to be released in 2009.) MLA's scholarly guide was last revised ten years ago, when the online universe was less pervasive than it is now. As a result, MLA users might have expected an expanded section on online sources, but they also might have expected simply an updating of the traditions that MLA has promulgated for almost sixty years. Those users would be wrong. This edition moves MLA's scholarly guidance into the twenty-first century in ways that most of us would never have expected.

The change begins with the title page. The venerable Joseph Gibaldi, who authored the previous editions as well as several editions of MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, isn't listed. Nor is there a new author/editor in his place. What is shown instead is "The Modern Language Association of America." Like APA's Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, this edition of the MLA guide has a corporate author. In his preface, David G. Nicholls, who replaced Gibaldi as the editor-in-charge, explains that the collaborative nature of the revision process led him to this decision: "I decided that the new edition should be considered a product of corporate authorship. Although I was responsible for revising or writing the entire volume, I had a great deal of assistance with my work" (xxiii). This decision demonstrates both humility and foresight on his part because it resulted in a new vision and a substantially restructured guide.

The major change? The third edition recognizes the extent to which the Internet has permeated our lives, down to the way we perceive information. The book is formatted much like Web sites, with headings and subheadings shown in visually different ways, with bulleted lists, and with short, summary introductions to detailed sections and sub-sections. As a result, it is more user-friendly than the previous guides were. The new guide also assumes that the computer is the user's main tool for writing and for accessing information. This is true both in small ways--no references remain to arcane typewriter keys--and in large ones. Books, and print matter in general, are no longer the primary aegises for publication or documentation information. This edition puts Web sources on an equal footing with print ones; print is no longer viewed as the major medium.

The chapter that readers will probably access most is chapter 6, "Documentation: Preparing the List of Works Cited." This is also the chapter that has been the most radically restructured. Rather than introducing documentation with a lengthy explanation of how to document books, then shifting to periodicals, and finally to electronic sources, this edition begins with a thoughtful discussion of the purposes and ethics that underlie documentation, which it follows with a description of the list of works cited itself. Using no single type of source as a benchmark, it examines issues common to all: authors' names, location and formatting of the works cited list, and the overall arrangement of entries within it. After this, the chapter is divided into sections on print sources (periodical and non-periodical), on Web sources, on "additional common sources" (221), and on works available in multiple media. This structure is quite different from previous editions, but it is a logical, easy-to-follow schema and should be easy for both brand-new users and veterans to master.

While the organization of this chapter differs substantially from previous editions, the changes to MLA documentation style itself are not as radical as we might expect, given the global changes to the guide. The documentation changes reflect this overall philosophy, but they are rational and modest in scope. This example was taken from page 177 of the guide:

Williams, Linda. "Of Kisses and Ellipses: The Long Adolescence of American Movies." Critical Inquiry 32.2 (2006):288-340. Print.

This works cited entry is for an article taken from Critical Inquiry, a print journal with continuous pagination. Note that the issue number is now included. Note also the word Print at the end. Because the preponderance of research is now done online, the third edition requires that all sources be designated as either Print or Web. (This includes books.) Print is no longer the default medium. This uniform treatment of online and print sources also explains the presence of the issue number. Issue numbers enable easier retrieval of articles online, even if they are from continuously paginated journals. An entry for an online journal article follows the same format except that Web replaces Print, and the date of access is included at the end of the entry. The example below is from page 220:

Wood, Michael. "The Last Night of All." PMLA 122.5 (2008):1394-402. Web. 22 Jan. 2008. These examples reflect other changes to usage and documentation in general. Note that underlining and italics are no longer considered equivalent. All longer works are shown in italics rather than underlined. In addition, URLs are not customarily included in entries under this new edition, either for periodical sources or for non-periodical sources (i.e., Web sites). URLs are considered to be ephemeral, and most users are sufficiently comfortable searching on the Web to be able to locate a source without them. URLs can be included if there is a need, such as a publisher's requirement.

This edition also acknowledges the problems of documenting new types of sources that emerge from one MLA edition to the next, which its predecessors did not. Note this addition to the introduction to "The List of Works Cited": "You may need to improvise when the type of scholarly project or the publication medium of a source is not anticipated by this manual. Be consistent in your formatting throughout your work. Choose the format that is appropriate to your project and that will satisfy your readers' needs" (168). How many times have you struggled with documenting a complicated online source that wasn't covered in your manuals? Did you feel unsure about the entry you finally used? Or frustrated that you didn't have better help? Think of all the tutorial time you spent trying to help students format citations for material for which MLA offered no guidance! This may not resolve those issues, but it does support your efforts to deal creatively and resourcefully with difficult sources.

Readers might also take special note of chapter 5, "Preparation of Theses and Dissertations." It has undergone substantial revision as well. Electronic publication of dissertations and submission of electronic files are discussed in more detail, with a section called "Publishing the Dissertation Through ProQuest" replacing the second edition's "Publishing the Dissertation Through University Microfilms International." This extended chapter focuses on bringing the general themes of the third edition to bear on dissertations.

Beyond the shift in documentation style, another major change in this edition is the emphasis on copyrights. The section on copyrights has almost doubled in length from the second edition to the third. Like this edition as a whole, it reflects the needs of publishing in an increasingly complex online environment. Much more detail is included throughout this section, especially about the history and development of copyright law and practice. The descriptions of Fair Use and of the rights of copyright owners are expanded as well. A specific section on copyright notice and credit has been added. As an example of this shift, this edition describes plagiarism as "a moral and ethical offense, rather than a legal one" (166), exemplifying how tangled the writing and publishing environment has become.

Again, readers should remember that MLA's two guides are related but not the same. Because they address different audiences--one professional, the other student--not all the changes laid forth in the scholarly guide will necessarily appear in the revised MLA handbook due out next year. As much as I like this revision of the guide, I know that some people accustomed to MLA documentation in its older forms might be disappointed with these changes. What sometimes seemed rigid about the traditional guidance was also reliable and familiar. If you are saddened by these changes, think of it this way: MLA has long been focused on adapting documentation to the needs of its users, and this is yet one more example of that. It is comforting to know that we are moving into the fast-paced, digital future with an old and comfortable friend by our side.

Works Cited

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. 2nd ed. New York: MLA, 1998. Print.

Modern Language Association of America. MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. 3rd ed. New York: MLA, 2008. Print.

Susan Mueller

St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis, MO
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Author:Mueller, Susan
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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