The war on footnotes

The last two papers I’ve published (found here and here) turned out to both appear in journals published by Oxford University Press. This publisher’s footnote policy is apparently quite rigid: they will not countenance them. This is quite unfortunate, since I have a tendency to indulge in them, and I have to admit that I can’t really imagine the reasoning behind this prohibition. Are footnotes frivolous? Distracting? Do they encourage our baser instincts? Is the path to damnation liberally strewn with pedantic footnotes? It is hard for me to believe that this can be true when, to take but one example, one can learn more from the footnotes in some papers of Barry Mazur (such as this one or this other one) than from the complete works of many a lesser mathematician.

Oxford’s editorial policy with respect to footnote is therefore to take this carefully selected material and move it to a parenthetical aside in the main body of the text; this, it must be said, is often a very decent solution — suggesting maybe that many of my footnotes (even in the joint paper which is the second of the two I mentioned, most of them were introduced by me) could be dispensed with –, but it may lead to bizarre, convoluted, or downright incomprehensible sentences if one is not careful. (In fact, it is only by reading one of these at the proof stage that I became conscious of the anti-footnote principle).

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

4 thoughts on “The war on footnotes”

  1. The best argument against footnotes I’ve heard is that the first thing everyone does when they turn the page and see a footnote at the bottom is read the footnote, which gets the role of footnotes exactly wrong. And since then I haven’t used them. Contrast that to links on wikipedia pages, for instance. There you never click through unless you really want the lower-order information.

  2. I’m not JB.

    I avoid footnotes; I prefer to let my reader follow a linear path without the need for distressing decisions. But a journal that bans footnotes is being dictatorial and silly.

    In the humanities, footnotes are common and the danger arises that they may overwhelm the main text.

    Anyone interested in footnotes must read Nicholson Baker’s amazing novel The Mezzanine.

  3. One very legitimate use of footnotes would be in translating old texts; using footnotes, the translator can make pithy remarks on linguistic subtleties and new terms replacing older ones.

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