On Footnotes and Scholarship


I (Dave) remember a while back, a classmate with open book in hand exclaimed with much adoration, “Wow, look at this first footnote!” It was the first page of an essay in an edited book, where the body text of the first page of the essay turned out to be only three or four lines, and the rest of the page was filled with an extensive footnote. To my colleague, this was impressive. It represented scholarship. On another occasion, I had heard a different classmate state that in order to impress others and/or to get an essay accepted for publication, the first footnote should fill over half the page. Again, this represented scholarship.

But what is a footnote? And what is its role (or roles) in scholarship and research? The major ways in which footnotes are used today is to identify references, sources, and citations related to statements in the…

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