Why Is It So Hard to Cite a Passage on the Kindle?

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Since the first days of the Kindle, readers have been somewhat undone by the absence of page numbers in the text of their Kindle “books.” Reactions range from bemused to outraged. Some purchasers claim to have sent their Kindles back because of this formatting peculiarity, er, innovation. Others say, no big deal; they seem to be fine with progress bars and percentage completed figures instead of eyeballing how far you have to go until the end of the book.

From those same early days, though, it occurred to me and to many others that academic customs and conventions regarding citation of works and of a passage in text would be turned on their heads by Kindle’s adherence to a new form of locating passages within a text by calling them, well, locations.  Much of the discussion among teachers and students about the use of  these newfangled mileage markers in text in schools has focused on the question “How do I check a citation if I don’t have a Kindle?”

Why do people struggle so? I think the hang-up has to do a little bit with the word book itself. Books have pages. And these pages are numbered. Right? If we go down this path in thinking that you are reading a “book” on your Kindle, then we would have to call it a book without page numbers. But that picture changes quite a bit if we posit that what you are reading on your Kindle is not a book, but a file.

Once we make this little shift in vocabulary, the problem gets a lot easier to deal with. The MLA has rules for citing electronic texts that are not paginated books. The following (from the Seventh Edition of the MLA Handbook) seems promising:

Rule 5.7.18.  A Digital File (MLA membership required for online access)

For example, when citing a file, which a Kindle book most assuredly is, the citation might look like this:

Stephen, Levitt D. Freakonomics. Rev. and Expanded ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Kindle file.

The APA even took up this issue in a blog post from last year, saying in part:

For the reference list entry, you’ll need to include the type of e-book version you read (two examples are the Kindle DX version and the Adobe Digital Editions version). In lieu of publisher information, include the book’s DOI or where you downloaded the e-book from (if there is no DOI):

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

The Chicago Manual of Style keeps it pretty simple as well:

Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (Harvard Business School Press, 2001), Kindle e-book.

Of course, there is no reason not to help the person who would like to find the source of your citation by including location numbers, or, as the APA suggests, using those structural features of the text itself that do not change by format, such as sections or chapters:

To cite in text, either (a) paraphrase, thus avoiding the problem (e.g., “Gladwell, 2008”), or (b) utilize APA’s guidelines for direct quotations of online material without pagination (see Section 6.05 of the manual). Name the major sections (chapter, section, and paragraph number; abbreviate if titles are long), like you would do if you were citing the Bible or Shakespeare.

Gladwell’s book has numbered chapters, and he’s numbered the sections in the chapters. An example direct quotation might be this:

One of the author’s main points is that “people don’t rise from nothing”  (Gladwell, 2008, Chapter 1, Section 2, para. 5).

It is interesting what happens to the problem of proper citation in a Kindle book when you call it by its proper name: a file.

Related: Does My Kindle Book Have Real Page Numbers?

  14 comments for “Why Is It So Hard to Cite a Passage on the Kindle?

  1. October 15, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Congratulations. Like your library, I’m sure, We have had many eticxed patrons come to the RCS Community Library for help with downloading library eBooks to their Kindles. They love the saved bookmarks that remain if they later checkout the books again or buy them later. We are happy to accomodate more devices and more reading.

  2. Will DeLamater
    June 22, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for the comment Ed. As Amazon will tell you, real page numbers is a matter of publisher preference. It does take more tech manipulation, though not much in 2015, to add those page numbers. Oddly, or sadly, the kind of scholarly volumes for which page numbers are most critical are least likely to have them since there is little financial motive to provide them.

  3. Ed
    June 21, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    It seems the only accepted “scholarly” way in an academic paper to cite a specific point in a kindle text that has no page numbers is to count up paragraphs in a section or chapter. That is a royal pain, unless you only have a few texts and a few footnotes. Try doing that when you have, say, a dozen or more texts, and dozens or hundreds of footnotes.

    However, it occurs to me that instead of citing only the paragraph you need, you can sometimes help yourself by citing that plus the paragraph before and after. That way, if you miscounted paragraphs, you are still likely to have cited the paragraph you wanted. The downside of that strategy is if the paragraphs are long, you end up citing too much material irrelevant to your point. Why is it so hard for Kindle to have real page numbers in all their books? Why do they make that a special feature of only some Kindle books.

  4. Steve
    May 30, 2013 at 6:45 am

    I’ve had a Kindle for about a year now. I too am still frustrated as to why an easy to use citation function has not been implemented.
    The reason I bought a Kindle was to consume all the texts required for an MA I am studying part time (distance learning) and although I can quote the title, author and ‘Kindle Version’, I cant see why the highlight function can’t have a ‘cite this’ option. Surely this would be the ultimate answer?
    It too frustrates me that to check the index of any book I have to perform a search. Considering the price, would it really be that hard to include the original index with page links? or even without page links so you just get every page that contains the indexed item you’re look for.

    The Kindle is a great item of convenience, if only it carried as much academic weight in its usage.

  5. Rebecca
    March 19, 2013 at 7:55 am

    I am curious as to how to cite the publication information for kindle books. Does one cite the original publication information of the print version, or the publication information for the kindle version?

  6. Candee
    March 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    This is a great discussion! As mentioned by Jeannebp (6/19/11), at least I’m not alone! I kind of can’t believe this has yet to be resolved, now that e-readers have been around for awhile and there will always be folks, especially in academia and publishing, for whom this is a constantly relevant issue. I’ve only been e-reading for a few months now, so it’s even newer to me. The reference librarian working with me at my university says this is the first she’s heard of it, which I also can’t believe, because professors generally have exacting standards, at least for graduate students! I, too, do not see page numbers on my new Kindle Fire, only location, which is not adequate or sufficient, according to my APA standards. I love Mark’s (1/18/11) suggestion about including the page number in the “hold-over and reveal definition and highlighting information” tool of the Kindle. Why hasn’t that suggestion been taken seriously? Wanna put it out, Mark, to Kindle (Amazon) (and all the other e-reader manufacturers)? Or maybe they’re already listening and trying to figure a way to make it work. Yours is, indeed, though, an excellent solution, I think, if it can be made to work.

  7. January 23, 2012 at 10:36 am

    My webmaster has had a real challenge getting the format whereby references can be used in my recent book, but guess what? So, Kindle–so it appears–is NOT suitable for scientific texts, that’s the bottom line. So instead, I’m giving the readers the option of getting the 434 references in my book sent to them, if they wish. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  8. L_Matt
    July 19, 2011 at 11:06 am

    As an alternative (depending on the book), you should still be able to comply to MLA with the following for in-text citation (unless your professor is a traditionalist):

    In Chapter 14, the central conflict is revealed: “text text text” (Smith).

    In the above, Smith wold be the author’s last name. This refers to your Works Cited list, wherein you cite the novel as a digital file (and thus, no page numbers are necessary).

    Of course, the best way is to ask your professor what they will accept in terms of citation. As you continue in college, you should probably inquire about what types of primary sources the professor will allow once she/he discusses the assignment.

  9. Jeannebp
    June 19, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I’m currently taking an online course for which I got the Kindle edition of the required text. I located this article because I am confused about how to make in text citations. I love this discussion – I still don’t know how but now I know I’m not alone 🙂

    I am not seeing page numbers in my Kindle as mentioned in the above post from Benhamish. I also agree with Maddi, several posts up, that counting sections and paragraphs is not realistic.

  10. Benhamish
    February 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Well, the Kindle has page numbers now, but their implementation is not quite what everyone wants, or even needs I suspect.

    I agree, having the entire text indexed kind of makes the citation reference moot, as long as everyone is reading on their Kindle of course, or at least another reader with search capabilities.

    I think the new page number scheme is a temporary setback, a ceding to the demands of those who have not fully embraced the new reading paradigm lol.

  11. January 18, 2011 at 10:21 am

    A small change to the Kindle firmware would make citing specific text much easier. Right now if you move the cursor to any word in a Kindle text (non pdf) the word is looked up in a dictionary and the definition is presented at the bottom of the screen. If they simply added the location to that display it would be easy to cite a specific location. The goto function would then enable placing the display and cursor at a specific location in the book file.

    Of course, you can always just search for the text since it is an electronic file, rendering the need to cite a specific location moot.

  12. Maddie
    December 26, 2010 at 2:42 am

    While it is useful to look at a Kindle book as a file for a works cited, the issue of MLA in text citation remains for pesky English majors like myself. When you are looking at a text in depth, professors continue to expect a direct pointer to, ironically, a location in the text. Seeing as these locations are not consistent from device to device, the given location is inadequate. Where page numbers are a requirement, this mental retooling is not enough. Also, the paragraph and section would need to be labeled in the text, because counting is impossible in texts that have no sections (such as Mrs. Dalloway– no chapters, just a string of consciousness,) so if this were the resolution (likely arrived at jointly between MLA and Amazon) the actual files would need to be recreated. Still waiting for MLA to answer the academic community’s confusion about this.

  13. Guido Barbi
    December 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    The problem isn’ t just about not being used to books without pages (which admittedly, for me, takes time to get used to). The main problem are standards for citation, which have been adopted for centuries. When it comes to classics, you need a particular number. Nothing else. It seems only logical to keep the classic reference numbers.
    When e-books will be available and standard enough, people will start citing new stuff, based on e-book standards. But for all books which appeared before you can’t change the standard, in the same way, some books are still cited on the basis of the papyrus/scroll number they were found in. Also, when e-books will become largely used, you will have different editions of the same book, but you will still want to have a standard reference number implemented, which is edition-independent.

  14. Mike Manning
    November 22, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I have had difficulty when it comes to using different versions of the same Kindle book. For instance, the book A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini can be downloaded to many devices (e.g. iPhone, Android phone, Kindle, Kindle DX, computer). When using a Kindle version of a book, the same quote on different devices will not always be at the same location.

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