I've just recently completed work on my Master's Thesis, so I understand that academic writing requires certain conventions of style. The particular conventions I've been required to follow are in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. I have no problem with the idea of formatting requirements per se because they make it an awful lot easier for publishers to get things published. Furthermore, everyone can feel comfortable knowing where they stand in terms of what a paper should look like. Ideally, the substance of each paper would be more likely to be evaluated on its merits, seeing as how they all would be equal in terms of style.
Well, strict print standards have been a swell idea in the past, but I have to say that given the publishing realities of the 21st Century, they're more than a bit outdated. With the advent of computers and online publishing, there's just no reason to sweat the small stuff, like margins and line indentations at the beginnings of paragraphs. Today's publications are often designed to be dynamic to some extent, adapting to the preferences of the reader. In this realm, picky formatting standards are irrelevent.
If you're going to be picky about formatting and ignore advances in publishing technology, you ought to at least be consistent about it. In different editions, the Publication Manual changes its mind about these little things, one year saying that it has to be done a certain way and the next year saying that if it's done the old way it's wrong. Shucks, this stuff is not God-given morality! It's not right and wrong, it's margins!
In my academic and professional business writing, I'm pretty strict about grammar and punctuation. Heck, I've written up standards on report writing myself. The thing is, when I wrote those standards, I knew that the people reading the standards needed clear guidance, so I wrote a manual that was easy to read and even had some entertaining examples to keep the readers from gnashing their teeth down to the roots.
The problem with this Publication Manual is that it's got no style. By that I mean two things. First, it's as dry as the Gobi desert. More importantly, it's unclear and incomplete.
If you're going to write up a set of standards for academic writing, you better bloody well have some sort of idea about what kinds of things academics write. In the case of this particular manual, for example, you should take into account the full breadth of psychological writings. Not this manual. It focuses on the quantitative clinical to the neglect of the qualitative case study.
For example, there's no real guidance for a standard approach to incorporating the statements of interviewed respondents into the text of a paper. Oh, sure, there's a section on quotations, but its standards are designed for quotations from other published sources, not for original material. I work with original interviews, and in my experience, the standards of this Publication Manual only make the incorporation of the material more awkward.
Even more fundamental a problem is the whole publish-or-perish publication racket upon which this manual is based. It's outdated, and any academic worth his or her funny looking robes ought to know that. In spite of the growth of the Internet as a means of sharing information, academia remains attached to the old idea of pricey professional printed journals. They're edited by scrupulous folks who separate the wheat from the chaff, and that's all well and good, but the fact is that the old journal system keeps information out of the hands of ordinary folks, who often have to go to university libraries to request loans from other libraries to make grainy photocopies to read just to see if a piece of research is what it appears to be in the abstract.
It's high time that these publications got out of the expensive print business and published their material exclusively online. If journals went completely online, their articles could be read by millions instead of just a few thousand. The information could be used more effectively by students, academics and professionals.
The great thing about online publications is that they can easily be reformatted by readers to meet their own particular needs. The margins, fonts, spacing, etc. of a good basic web page can be changed by anyone to suit any particular needs. No, there wouldn't be any need for nit-picking formatting standards of the sort dictated by this dinosaur of a Publication Manual. The important stuff, like good writing and good ideas, would be allowed to shake themselves loose from the years of library dust collected from years of disuse.