The Ballad of Purdue OWL

There was a conversation recently on one of the library listservs concerning recent changes to Purdue OWL, a commonly-recommended site that in the past has always provided credible and accurate citation guidance as well as some great academic writing advice. Apparently, the site was bought by (or is now in partnership with) Chegg, a company that basically encourages students to use AI to do research and write for them because clearly that’s the best way to actually learn anything.

Apparently this change happened almost a year ago but some of us (including me) are just realizing it now.

The librarians in the e-mail chain had some good alternatives to recommend, including Excelsior OWL and some others. I know we have a pretty good Citation Guide at my own library that’s kept pretty up to date.

Still. I’m in mourning.

There is no user-friendly way to learn about citation. There just isn’t. The actual publication manuals are labyrinthine. The sites that generate citations for the users don’t actually teach them anything about how to cite and are also inaccurate. Purdue OWL was the one resource I could point students to and be able to say, “This is a credible source of citation information that’s relatively easy to understand.”

This was a resource I shared with students at the reference desk, in my classroom, and in my side gig as an online writing tutor. Whenever a student came to me with a question about citation, it was the first place I looked for an answer to recommend.

To be clear, the citation information on the site still seems good. The many advertisements that follow you around (including everyone’s favorite: the autoplaying video) don’t necessarily change that. But now that it’s attached to a site like Chegg, it’s hard to recommend it without at least some reservation. Because students might come for the citation help, but they’ll stay for the promise of homework assistance that looks an awful lot like cheating.

More than that, though, Purdue OWL was my own go-to resource for citation help.

Generally, I use APA to cite because that’s the citation style I’m most familiar with by virtue of being an online writing tutor for a graduate program where APA was the standard. Some library journals use APA, including the first few that I published in. But a lot of the big ones use Chicago style.

I did not take this into account when writing my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” If you take a look at that article, you’ll see that there are probably around 80 sources cited. Originally, all of those citations were in APA style because the decision to submit it to College & Research Libraries, which uses Chicago style, came later in the process. Before submitting it for review, I had to convert all 80 or so citations to Chicago, a style I had never used before. And I had to do it by hand.

In short, FML.

While the submission guidelines for the journal are helpful in showing what they are looking for in terms of citation, I still stumbled on many questions along the way. Questions that I answered using Purdue OWL.

This is a story I tell students often. First, because it’s hilarious seeing their reactions to the idea of citing 80 sources when they are daunted by idea of citing 3-5. Second, because it shows that I’m recommending them tools that I use myself. And third, because I think it helps them to know that even as someone who’s required to do research and publish as part of my job, I don’t have all of the rules memorized and I probably never will. So it’s okay if they don’t either.

The change at Purdue OWL doesn’t prevent me from still being able to do this, obviously. But it’s just one more asterisk to affix to another on a rapidly diminishing list of learning resources that could be recommended without reservation.


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