Bryan Caplan  

Useless Information

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When you cite a book, you're expected to list its city of publication. As in:

Sheffrin, Steven. (1996). Rational Expectations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Questions: Does anyone care what city a book was published in? Why do you need to know?

Citing the publisher gives you a signal of quality. Citing the city of publication seems like a total waste of labor to me. Maybe before the Internet was around, it had some use, though I doubt it.

Of course, I'm not going to stop citing cities all myself. There's a real path-dependence problem here - no one wants to deviate from accepted practice first, for fear of being seen as a dummy or a weirdo.

But the day I become a journal editor, the city of publication is history!

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The author at The Volokh Conspiracy in a related article titled Good Question: writes:

    I've wondered this too.

    [Tracked on July 30, 2005 2:15 PM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
JG writes:

Here are a few reasons why city of publication isn't completely useless:

Suppose you cite a fact from FABRIC OF THE COSMOS by Brian Greene, and in your references you say that the publisher is Penguin, but don't list the city. Greene's book is published by Penguin in the U.K., but by Knopf (a division of Random House) in the U.S. Now, I'm reading in the U.S. your paper, book, whatever that cites Greene's book, and I go to the Penguin USA site--which is different and separate from the Penguin UK site--to find the book. I can't find it.

Many books are sold separately to U.S. and U.K. publishers. (Sometimes they are even sold separately to U.S. and Canadian publishers. And, of course, this applies to other regions as well.)The books have different editors at the different publishers. So, it's conceivable that what is cited from the U.K. edition might not be in the U.S. edition.

Even when a book is published by the same press in both regions, the book may have different editors in the U.S. and U.K. So, the different editions could, in theory, contain different information. In any case, they are technically different editions of the same book. (Many publishers may sell the same edition in both countries, but some may not...)

Also, some books may not have been sold in both regions. So Penguin, say, may publish a book in the U.K., but there may not be an American publisher. If Penguin holds rights only to distribute the book in the U.K., then the book won't turn up on an search in the U.S., much less the Penguin USA site.

Chris writes:

Why is a waste of labor? Just use Endnote to pull the citation out of the library of congress database and the information is formatted for you. Compiling your own bibliography is a thing of the past.


Apart from Harmondsworth (Middlesex) vs. New York Penguin, there are also Cambridge University Presses in Cambridge and New York, Oxford University Presses in Oxford, New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc, and in the world of Chinese academic publishing, one "Commercial Press" (Shangwu shuju) each in Hong Kong, Taipei and Bejing...

Bernard Yomtov writes:

What's this?

It can't be useless.

If it were then some firm would stop listing the city of publication. This would reduce its costs and give it an advantage over competitors, who would then have to follow suit or be driven out of business.

Isn't that right?

Niels Jackson writes:

The comments above are nonsense. If you really want to find a book, it is child's play to type the book's title (in quotes) into Google along with the author's last name. 99% of the time, your first result is going to be the Amazon (or other bookseller's) webpage specifically for the precise book in question. Anyone who begins the search for a book by looking directly at the publisher's website should wise up.

Buck writes:

As JG points out, there is occasionally significant difference between the American and the British editions. An obvious example is Harry Potter, which is published by Scholastic in the US, but not anywhere else in the world. In some instances, the publisher is the same, but the content is different.

However, using this as a reason for including the city of publication is rather like looking for reasons in modern science for biblical commandments.

The simplest reason for inclusion of cities is copyright restrictions, both logistic and formal. It is possible for similarly named publishers to exist in different parts of the world--I've even found similarly named publishers in the US alone! The city makes it less ambiguous. Second, the city usually udentifies the location of the publisher's headquarters or the division that is responsible for the publication. For example, Pearson now owns Prentice Hall, which is quite an old publisher that used to be located in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. However, school textbooks published by PH have been done in recent years by the division headquartered in Upper Saddle River, NJ. If you open a PH textbook, that's what the copyright notice will tell you. Two months ago, the PH division in Needham, MA, moved to a new location in Boston, MA. Although there are people who are staying in NJ, the headquarters have also been moved to the new location. So a directive was issued within the company to change the copyright notice in all forthcoming titles from Upper Saddle River to Boston, MA.

Another Pearson division is Allyn&Bacon. I have just picked up an AB psych book. If you look on the title page, it reads (in a column, at the bottom of the page): Allyn&Bacon Boston London Toronto Sydney Tokyo Singapore. However, the real copyright notice is on the next page (conveniently referred to as the copyright page), where it all becomes more clear: Allyn&Bacon, A Pearson Education Company, 75 Arlington Street, Boston, MA 02116. So when you list in the reference, "Gerrig and Zimbardo (2002) Boston: Allyn&Bacon," you are referring to the location of the headquarters where the book was officially published and where you should send inquiries about the book.

There are several other reasons for the development of the convention, but the bottom line is that the reasons that might have once been prevalent no longer hold or ones that are meaningful in some contexts are less so in others. The most immediate reason for the practice is, quite simply, convention. Sometimes it emanates from a professional association (e.g., American Psychological Association, Modern Languages Association and the American Mathematical Society set the standards under which professional literature in the corresponding fields is to be published). For some conventions, the reasons are also legal, although I suspect that the copyright act does not specify that the city of publication be specified. But, rest assured, if you try to end the practice in a particular publication, you'll end up in a lot of hot water, some of it legal.

Timothy writes:

These days wouldn't the most sensical bibliography dispense with everything but the ISBN for books? Other citations would have to stay the same, but couldn't anything with an ISBN simply use that?

Robert writes:

Timothy: if just the ISBN would be acceptable, then why not just your name, street address, and zip code on a letter? Since the city and state is encoded in the zip code already, why do we continue to keep writing the city and state in an address?

Timothy writes:

Robert: I blame the inefficiencies of government for the USPS, as for private carriers I blame social convention and momentum.

Eric H writes:

I think you can just use the zip on the letter. In fact, if you only know the city someone lives in (like, say, Albuquerque), but you don't know the exact ZIP, then you can just put the name, street address, and the first 3 (871 in my example) and it should get there because the main office will sort it to the right field office. I know someone who does this all the time. Frighteningly, she has memorized most of the first 3 digit combinations (or maybe she has just learned the 3 digits for the major cities?).

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