What are the publication manuals saying?
The «AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors» is one of several important sets of guidelines for medical authors, and the answer we are seeking is fairly succinctly formulated in terms that leave little to chance (1). When referring to a specific page in a book, this page number should be provided at the end of the citation in the concluding list of references (p. 52 – 3). If the same book is referred to repeatedly (p. 44), the source should be named only once in the list of references, and the relevant page numbers should be included in the referring endnotes in the body of text, like this: (1p44)
Thus, here I refer to page 44, one of the 1,010 pages in source no. 1, in this case the AMA Manual of Style.
Many medical journals, however, refer to another authoritative source in their instructions to authors: the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors and their «Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals» (2). Here, finding the information we are searching for in our case is not equally straightforward. First, you need to click your way to another website called «Citing Medicine» in the National Library of Medicine (NLM), but when you get there, you really have a lot to play around with (3).
Here we also find the requirement that page numbers or other locators be provided at the end of the citation in the list of references when referring to «parts of books». If an author includes a verbatim quote, rephrases a paragraph or cites a specific and delimited argument from a book, he/she by necessity uses a «part of» a book, and as such, the matter should therefore be straightforward. The problem is that the collection of examples associated with this point may give rise to some uncertainty. It is not made unmistakably clear whether a verbatim quote, a rephrasing or a specific argument should be treated as «part[s]» similar to other «parts» (such as tables and figures), simply because no illustrations of these are provided in the formidable collection of examples that accompany this chapter (4).
The solution to how to proceed to the next station in this treasure hunt is embedded in the introduction to NLM’s website. Here it is stated that «Citing Medicine» is based on documents prepared by the International Organization for Standardization (5) and the National Information Standards Organization (6). Finally we have found two of the stone tablets that form the basis for «Citing Medicine», and these two authoritative sources briefly and simply state that locators must be provided when referring to a specific part of a larger publication, such as a book (5:9; 6:43).
One does not need to search for long in prestigious medical journals to come across examples of medical researchers who fail to follow these rules, all of whom have had peers and editors who have allowed them to do so. What may be the cause of this phenomenon?
The most obvious explanation would be that many medical researchers are unaware of what ISO (5), NISO (6) and the AMA Manual of Style (1) have to say about the matter, which in a certain way is understandable, considering the inaccessibility of the two former sources and the size of the latter. I am afraid that the matter is hardly that simple. Even though an author may never have seen these sources, one would reasonably expect that with the aid of good, old-fashioned common sense he or she ought to understand that not only would it be useful, but in some cases absolutely essential for a reader to have locators provided for a source document as comprehensive as a book. Most of us apply this logic unquestioningly on a daily basis in a variety of contexts. For example, if we need information to find our way to a specific house, we would like to have not only the name of the street, but also the house number, and having this number is even more essential when the street is long or when it is difficult to orient yourself along it.