Skip to main content

Why are pinpoints not used in scientific citation?

My law undergraduate degree taught referencing of legal authorities using the Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA). Originally created in 2000 for use at Oxford, OSCOLA is now the standard in most UK law schools, and used by many international organisations.

Like any other referencing style, OSCOLA sets guidelines for how to cite a range of different legal sources. One particular concept is the pinpoint. This is a page or paragraph number which appears after a citation, often when attributing a statement to a specific judge, or when referencing numbered paragraphs. This precise format helps the reader identify the location of the claim within a source, playing a crucial role in building a defensible legal argument.

Last year, I entered the world of the natural sciences at Imperial College London. Imperial uses the Harvard referencing format, but other formats such as Vancouver or Nature all suffer from the same problem: a lack of pinpoints. Whereas if I was citing a legal authority I would usually cite with a pinpoint, this is not required in scientific writing unless taking a direct quotation.

How often do you follow references in scientific writing only to struggle to find the source of a claim or number? Perhaps less important when citing a conclusion or famous work, pinpoints become invaluable when citing figures, results, or a section in a long document. Pinpoints are even useful for the author who wants to check their work and the original references, or during the peer review process.

Given how precise science aims to be in methodology and results, it seems odd that scientific referencing styles do not make more use of pinpoints.