September 08, 2008
Footnote this...
Posted by Ned Snow

Thank you, Gordon.  I appreciate the opportunity to guest blog for the next two weeks.   

As a relatively new entrant into academia, I am quickly becoming familiar with the practice of footnoting.  Prior to the academy, I had always believed a footnote was appropriate when pointing out the fact that authority does in fact exist for a stated proposition, when giving credit to another author for a unique idea, or when discussing a thought tangential to the subject matter of the text but nevertheless interesting.  Statements that are obviously true, statements summarizing arguments yet to come or already made within the article, and statements reflecting my own ideas (even if disputable) do not require a footnote, so I believed.  Oh how little I did know.  How naïve I was.  I have come to learn that to satisfy law review editors, every sentence requires a footnote.  Topic sentences of a paragraph, summaries of ensuing sections, blatantly obvious propositions, my own ideas—it doesn’t matter: they all need their own footnote.  My personal favorite is this sentence from a colleague’s article: “Buildings advance human happiness.”  Such a unique proposition—the editor informed my colleague—required a footnote: someone might disagree with the proposition that buildings serve to advance human happiness; and if no footnote validated this proposition, that someone might discredit the article.  Apparently editors believe that more footnotes suggests credibility; that more footnotes suggests extensive research has occurred to ensure the veracity of the claims made therein; that more footnotes implies the strength of the argument’s authority; that more is better.  The simple truth, however, is that the more footnotes there are, the less likely it is that people will actually read them, and accordingly, the less effective they are at making their point.  It is rather telling that persons who are authorities on an issue—who can publish in well respected journals based on their name alone—usually refrain from footnoting much.  So ironically, an article with few footnotes often suggests the strength of its author’s authority.  Perhaps my career goal, then, should be to someday publish without many footnotes.  What a day that would be. 

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