Footnotes banned at Berkeley, Dow skyrockets, 14th century monk found shot.

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Humor me for a moment.  Let’s assume people take the time to actually check footnotes as they read.  Would that really help much?

The whole point of the footnote is to prevent the reader from getting BS’d by the author, yet here’s how they work:

  • The author has the sources (allegedly), the reader does not
  • The author knows where they got the sources, the reader has no idea
  • The reader has to go on an egg hunt, trying to find sources that could be anywhere in the virtual or physical world, to which they may or may not have access

I couldn’t design this more backwards if I tried.  This is what you design when your goal is to BS the reader while giving the illusion you are not.

This is a problem.  We are now a knowledge economy, and footnotes are entrenched in how we assess the quality of written communication.  They represent one of our primary quality control mechanisms and that is not something to be taken lightly.  

Quality management is likely to be just as pivotal to our success in a knowledge economy as it was when we were an industrial economy.  It arguably propelled the United States from lowly British colony to world economic power.  Any credible historian would vouch that our quality control systems, methods and guidelines were crucial to America’s success –TQM, statistical process control, Six Sigma.

Here in our bleeding-edge knowledge economy we feature a bunch of footnote style guides: Chicago Manual, APA, MLM, AMA, NLM, ACA, IEEE, BlueBook, Maroonbook. Heaven forbid someone misplace a period or underline something that should be in italics.

We appear to be hopelessly shackled into using a quality control mechanism that was probably developed by a pre-printing-press monk somewhere in medieval Europe.  If an archeologist looked hard enough they might find a footnote on a cave wall or papaya leaf. 

How long are we going to continue with this nonsense for the sake of academic tradition?   We have generations of students in grad school, undergrad and high school who are being required to learn and use a quality control mechanism that belongs to another time and age.   They have even less time and patience then we do, a ton more information to process and their load is only going up.

What do you think?

Agree or disagree?

Are we capable of breaking this paradigm?


I’m not checking footnotes, are you?

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Footnotes appear in just about every research article, scientific publication, dissertation, law journal, business book, and other formal source of written knowledge.  Like it or not, they represent the primary mechanism we use to assess the trustworthiness and reliability of the non-fiction we read. 

Do you check the footnotes in the stuff you read?  I don’t.  I lack the time, energy or patience to:

  • Copy/past a reference into a browser
  • Hope for a hit on Google, head to the library if not
  • Get an abstract, if I’m lucky
  • Download or buy a source (if I get that far)
  • Read the source
  • Find and interpret the footnote reference
  • Go back to whatever page was being read

It’s not that we don’t need a mechanism for readers to verify facts and sources.  We need that desperately.  Otherwise:

  • Facts are unsupported
  • Points unsubstantiated
  • Answers unreliable
  • Indecision and lack of evidence plague teams
  • Everyone sits around fighting to be right
  • Nothing gets done

What we need is one that works.  That people actually use.  How should this work? Here’s my wish-list of design requirements:

  1. Reader should have the same source access the author had (incorporated as metadata into the written work)
  2. Reader should be able to see the exact spot on the source doc the author references in under a second (a couple mouse-clicks)
  3. Reader should see evidence that the author in fact read the source docs (according to this study that’s a big problem)
  4. It should take zero extra effort for the author to create these references, and be integrated into their reading and writing process.

Welcome to Pandexio.   This is how it works in our software, and we think it’s about time.

What do you think?

Agree or disagree?