Against Endnotes

| Comments (3) | Misc
Kieran Healy posts about how annoying endnotes are:
Via Andrew Gelman, a post by Aaron Haspel about the evils of poorly-done endnotes, and endnotes in general. This is something John has written about before, too. Endnotes really are a problem in scholarly books. In general, footnotes are better. Both are better than author-in-text citations (Healy 2006).

Indeed. It's important to distinguish between references used as citations and what are basically sidebar comments. It's not that bad to have to flip to the end of the book to figure out which exact publication someone is citing, especially if there is an inline explanation. The right form here is "Rescorla [9] argues that...". On the other hand, having to flip to the end of the book to see some endnote that explains a subtle point of the argument is quite intolerable.

One particularly horrid practice is using the same code point for multiple endnotes (Haspel's suggested practice of using symbols rather than numbers is particularly problematic here). If you must use endnotes, best to number them continuously from the front of the text. Otherwise one is forced to remember not only the note number but also the chapter—or worse yet which page—it appears.

All that aside, while I hate endnotes I rather like footnotes. The linear nature of manuscripts formatted on paper (as opposed to electronic hypertext) lends itself to a particular expository style with a fairly short maximum context stack depth. Footnotes provide a limited escape hatch to that linearity (kind of the way programmers think about goto). The context switch overhead makes this effect a lot harder to achieve with endnotes.

3 Comments

See Also Franken v. Coulter on the subject of endnotes[1].

[1] Franken, Al. "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them". Dutton Adult (August 29, 2003).

Rescorla (2003) is much clearer than Rescorla [9]. I might recall what paper you did in 2003. `9' is purely local to whatever I'm reading.

Adam: In a lot of circumstances (\section{Related Work}), there is enough information to identify the work without chasing the [9]. Also, I like having the reference string precisely indexing into the bibliography; I don't particularly disagree that [9] is insufficient, but I would suggest [Res2003] or similar rather than just a year. All that said, I'm sure you're aware that the citation style is often set in stone by the publisher.

ekr: I like the observation and analogies in the last paragraph.

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