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Everybody Hates the McGill Guide: A Citations Editor’s Lamentation

Contrary to popular belief (i.e., that of my closest friends and family), a lot of people care about the McGill Guide. This is evidenced by the many tweets, blog posts, and articles that refer to the Guide. As the Citations Editor of the 10th edition, I’ve read all of them. While I found many to be insightful and helped me through the course of my mandate, I noticed something: few seemed to understand the actual process behind writing the McGill Guide. This article aims to fill this conceptual void by providing a firsthand account of how the 10th edition was written.

It is worth noting at the outset that my experience writing the Guide was unique. The 10th edition was written during the pandemic, which led to an abnormally disorganized mandate. It was evident from the beginning that I would be dealing with some novel challenges, the most consequential of which arose during my first meeting in 2021 with our publishers (a little mom and pop conglomerate called Thomson Reuters). While my predecessors had planned on creating a revised 9th edition focused on correcting mistakes, Thomson Reuters rejected this idea and requested a new edition. This sudden change of plans meant that a significant amount of work would have to be done, and quickly. A new edition is normally published once every four years, which meant that the expected publication date for the next edition was 2022. While this would eventually be extended to 2023, the amount of work to be done in such a short timeframe felt overwhelming.

The burden of creating a new edition does not normally fall on the publishing editor alone. Citations Editors and their committees usually build upon the work of their predecessors on an ongoing basis. However, since my predecessors believed that the next publication would be a revised 9th edition, their mandates were more focused on endeavors beyond the next edition (such as planning the Indigenous Citations Project). This meant that the bulk of work was unintentionally tasked to me and later to my successor, Robyn Otto. With minimal material to build upon, I relied heavily on the legal community and, in particular, on law librarians. Indeed, Mtre Daniel Boyer spent his final year before retirement as McGill Law’s head law librarian supporting me in his role as faculty advisor. One of his many helpful suggestions was that I reach out to law librarians across Canada to solicit their advice. After collecting and organizing feedback from numerous sources—including law librarians and academics, the McGill Law Journal (MLJ) inbox, and social media—I feel that I understand many of the legal community’s expectations when it comes to the McGill Guide. Having written the 10th edition, I also understand why some of those expectations have not been met. This article will focus on two.

Expectation 1: The Guide shouldn’t be written by students

One of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across in feedback is the belief that faculty members have a significant role in the creation of the McGill Guide. This is not the case. The MLJ is a student-run operation. Students do the work of running the journal and writing the Guide; faculty advisors advise. The decisions that I made as Citations Editor were completely independent. There was no professor or committee that either approved or denied my decisions. Now, did it feel kind of bananas that one student had so much decision-making power over the future of the Guide? Absolutely. By way of example, I decided to get rid of the section making “See” a default introductory signal because I thought it was annoying and redundant (valid 🙏). While I ran my ideas for substantive changes by other members of the MLJ and my faculty advisor, the decision to implement these changes was my own. In short, the McGill Guide is authored and edited by students, not by members of the faculty.

Now, some take issue with the fact that students write the Guide, believing them to be inexperienced at best and solely motivated by credits at worst. Notwithstanding my disagreement with the suggestion that students have no interest in improving citations as a practice, I do agree that the current student-led approach can lead to certain issues. Due to the yearly change in Citations Editor, maintaining consistency and continuity can be challenging. Students are also new to the study of law which makes it difficult to understand what needs to be changed. Much of my mandate was spent researching unfamiliar areas of law to understand the context of various general forms. The short section on Islamic law for example, was only finalized after hours of background research into the Qur’an, Sunnah and Fiqh and numerous consultations with Islamic law scholars. However well-intentioned I was, this work could probably have been done much more quickly and competently by a non-student. So, what is the solution? Faculty advisors could take on more responsibility in the Guide’s creation, but they already have limited schedules. Organizing a group of professionals to create a legal citation manual holds potential, but how would this work get done? I question whether non-students would be willing to provide the same amount undivided time and free labor to write and edit each new edition. However, if creating the Guide becomes a paid position: where does the money come from? This question becomes particularly salient if the output of this work is freely available online, which brings me to the second expectation.

Expectation 2: The Guide should be open access

The idea of an open access online McGill Guide is by no means novel. It was by far the most common suggestion for the 10th edition and has been under consideration by the MLJ for years. At the outset of my mandate, looking into making the next edition publicly available online was a priority. I quickly found out, however, that the 10th edition of the McGill Guide would have to be published by Thomson Reuters due to our existing contract. While an open access edition of the Guide remains a possibility — this will be up to future Citations Editors to figure out — there are some notable hurdles to doing so ($$$). The MLJ relies on royalties from sales of the McGill Guide to pay for speaking events, compensate editors for their summer work, and fund projects. These are worthwhile endeavors that contribute to student life at McGill and to the legal community at large. Given the uncertain long-term financial implications of Quebec’s tuition hikes for out-of-province students at English universities, I worry that losing income from royalties would threaten the MLJ’s capacity to sustain itself.

While I maintain that an online open access version of the McGill Guide is both possible and preferable, I am cognizant that it will be an uphill battle. Thomson Reuters has published the McGill Guide since its first edition in 1986. A future in which the McGill Guide is either free or affordable would require a significant change in its publication. Self-publishing presents significant potential costs, depending on the form it takes. The most viable option for an open access self-published McGill Guide would likely only be available for free online. However, this may still incur costs for website development and maintenance. If physical copies were available, it would likely be at a cost, as this option would necessitate the hiring of staff to work on its physical publication. These are challenging issues, but not impossible ones. I am confident in the MLJ’s commitment to improving the McGill Guide’s accessibility going forward.

Some concluding remarks (as is tradition)

There are myriad expectations concerning the McGill Guide within the legal community. It would be impossible to implement every suggestion that I came across. Many contradicted each other, several were redundant or would have overcomplicated the Guide, and many others still were simply beyond my capacity to address within the timeline given. The Indigenous Citations Project, for example, is a multi-year endeavour that aims to establish a unique approach to Indigenous sources of law in the 11th edition. To have included this section in the 10th edition (as expected by the legal community) would have required it to be inappropriately rushed and done without proper consultation. While I’m sure that the 10th edition failed to meet many expectations then, it is worth keeping in mind that some were not met for a reason, but all were taken under advisement.

Despite all my gripes, I am truly grateful for the time I spent editing the 10th edition. In my earnest commitment to improve the Guide I learned so much from so many bright and dedicated members of the legal community. Every student editor at the MLJ that I reached out to for help provided me with their utmost support. Editing the McGill Guide was a lot of hard work, and I’m happy to say that I’m sincerely proud of my contribution. It is easy to complain online about how bad and dumb the McGill Guide is; I get it, complaining is fun. What’s more difficult, however, is putting in the work to improve the citations practice. If that means organizing a non-profit made up of legal professionals focusing on creating an entirely new, open access guide to uniform citations, then so be it. If one ever comes to fruition, I would love to be in the group chat. If this work continues to be undertaken by the MLJ, however, they will need the unwavering support of the legal community.

And in the end, if you’re going to complain about the McGill Guide online, all I ask is that you try to make some of your content entertaining. In a sea of anti-McGill Guide vitriol, your lighthearted meme could be enough to make a future Citations Editor smile… and isn’t that what we all want? For Citations Editors to be happy? I know I do.

Naomi Sayers, “APA citation. McGill guide.” (13 March 2021), online: <twitter.com/kwetoday>.

Comments

  1. I agree with both of your expectations (or goals shall we call them), and wonder – has MLJ approached CanLII about this?

    I am continually amazed by what the team at CanLII accomplishes. The CanLII site is, without a doubt, the best open-access legislation site anywhere in the world. It seems like a pan-Canadian legal citation guide written by legal professionals and mounted on a free and public platform would be right up CanLII’s alley.

    Someone on this site should be able to plant this seed! Please, do it for all of us in the legal and legal research fields.

  2. Students shouldn’t be in charge of editing McGill, end of story. No wonder this thing remains such a convoluted mess. It’s also troubling that the law journal and Thompson Reuters exert so much influence over the publication process.

  3. I agree with Batgirl!

  4. Alexandra Champagne

    To Batgirl’s comment: I agree that the MLJ would benefit from collaboration with CanLII. Any resources would be of serious help in the MLJ’s goal of furthering the citations practice.

    To Concerned Lawyer’s comment: The McGill Guide was started by the student-run MLJ in 1986. What could be troubling about the MLJ exerting influence over their own citation guide? Also, I don’t think that non-students are immune from creating things that are convoluted messes. The legal field doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being straightforward. Indeed, all the convoluted suggestions for changes to the 1oth edition that I received were from legal professionals who have worked in this industry for decades. Sometimes being an expert in something can actually make you miss the forest for the trees. So, what’s the value in disparaging the work of students? It’s certainly not furthering the practice. Like I said, it’s easy to complain online, but putting in the work is more difficult. There is nothing stopping non-students from creating their own open-access, simple and concise citations style. Working on a new guide could be a good way to channel one’s concern for the practice into something more positive and tangible. :)

  5. Sarah A. Sutherland

    I don’t use the McGill Guide much, but I have found that the “UBC Legal Citation Guide” generally meets my needs and is openly available: https://guides.library.ubc.ca/legalcitation.
    Thank you to the staff at the UBC Law Library for making it available, and thank you Alexandra and the other people who have worked on the McGill Guide all these years. It’s not easy work.

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