Today’s adventure in pedantry is brought to you by a certain biological journal that shall remain nameless to which I’m preparing to submit a manuscript. The author guidelines for this journal are detailed, and clearly have been given much thought. Yet there are multiple aspects of the bibliography formatting requirements that are simply idiotic. In some cases they waste space; in others they are simply visually unappealing or distracting. Bibliographies are hugely important parts of a scientific publication because they link claims made by the present paper to previous findings or hypotheses in the literature. They should be designed to make information retrieval, i.e. finding the item you’re looking for in the list and getting the details you need from it to retrieve the cited paper, easy. Furthermore, there are ease-of-reading considerations when formatting in-line citations, as well as ease-of-typesetting and printing. Bibliographies should be useful and they might as well look decent too. Here are my thoughts (supported only by my own brain and not the result of any sort of controlled research) on how this should be accomplished. (I do not address the issue of numbered versus alphabetical (author-year) citations, as I think there are good uses for both. I’ll be talking only about author-year formats throughout.)
Perhaps you think this matter is unimportant, because software exists that formats your bibliographies for you—you don’t have to spend time changing font styles or indenting meticulously. Perhaps use BiBTeX to generate your bibliographies. Good for you! So do I! But alas, there are yet some prehistoric publications that refuse to accept LaTeX submissions. And sometimes your advisor wants you to submit your manuscript to them.
Aha, you say, but I also have EndNote/Mendeley/whatever the kids are using these days to put bibliographic information into their Word documents. To you I say, at least have some consideration for your readers! Do you want them to read a paper that looks ugly? Don’t you ever wince when you read a paper from that one journal with the painful typesetting where it takes you forever to find that thing you’re looking for in the works cited list?
Consider: There is absolutely no reason to put a comma between the author’s last name and the publication year in your in-line citations (e.g. “Lennon & McCartney, 1966”). It is a waste of space that does nothing to ease the reader’s understanding. If anything, this makes lists of in-line citations more difficult to read: compare “Lennon & McCartney, 1966; Jagger & Richards, 1966; Wilson et al., 1966” to “Lennon & McCartney 1966; Jagger & Richards 1966; Wilson et al. 1966”.
Nor is there a reason to insist that citations of papers with three authors list all the authors the first time you cite them but “Firstauthor et al.” subsequently. Mind you, I’ve only ever seen one journal insist on this policy. (Bonus points if you know which journal.)
As for the actual bibliography, simplicity should be paramount. There is really no need to put the author’s names and/or the year in bold, or the journal’s name in italics. Really the only italicization should be of scientific names. All this extra formatting is distracting. A simple indent to draw the eye to where different entries start is enough.
The list of authors’ names should also be as easy to read as possible. My preferred format is sans periods and with commas only to separate authors, thus: Lennon J, McCartney P, Harrison G, Starr R. Adding periods after the authors’ initials is mildly visually distracting. Worse still is putting commas between the last name and initial as well as between authors—e.g. Lennon, J, McCartney, P, Harrison, G, Starr, R. Worst of all is listing the first author in Lastname, Initial format but subsequent authors as Initial Lastname—e.g. Lennon, J, P McCartney, G Harrison, R Starr. As to whether to separate the last two authors in a list with “and” (or &), I have no preference, but (and this is the case in the journal to which I’m planning to submit) it seems logically inconsistent to insist on listing all three authors (with an “&”) in in-line citations but not putting “&” in the list of references.
Finally, can we please stop italicizing “et al.”? Everyone uses this phrase. It’s not really foreign. I can see italicizing more obscure Latin terms like sensu latissimo, but et al. shows up in literally every scientific publication.