Getting to the Source – the Importance of proper and accurate citation

A major consideration for all academics and researchers will continually be source citations. It is imperative that sources be accurately and thoroughly listed and acknowledged to maintain the integrity of the researcher and the institution.

Any undergrad student will tell you that the rules for sourcing are obtuse and sometimes confusing. Today, we’ll give the general rules a review with a particular eye toward citation in the digital age.

Modern Language Association (MLA) Style

MLA is one of the most used citation styles. The commonly accepted resource for MLA style rules is the Perdue OWL guide.  The guide lists nine pieces of information to be included in the Works Cited section of a book or essay:

  1. Author.
  2. Title of source.
  3. Title of container,
  4. Other contributors,
  5. Version,
  6. Number,
  7. Publisher,
  8. Publication date,
  9. Location.

Notice the list includes punctuation. This should guide you in the punctuation of the source.

A few of these entries deserve more consideration. For example, “Title of source” and “Title of container”  are not abundantly clear. The source title is the specific name of the source. This would be the title of the book or article you are citing. The container would encompass any larger work the source is published within. A poem in a book of poetry or an article published in a journal would list the collection or journal as the container.

The ‘Number” refers to any sequencing, such as works in a volume series, that may be relevant to finding the source.

Finally, “Location” is the last and most important element for locating the sourced material within the work it is published in. For a book, the page number is used. For a digital source, the exact URL or any kind of anchored link would be listed.

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

The APA style is used most often for social science research and writing. While less common than MLA style, it is still important to be aware of the specific rules. Again, we’ll reference the OWL guide for information on APA rules.

The major difference between MLA and APA is the design of the citations page.


  • All lines after the first line of each entry in your reference list should be indented one-half inch from the left margin. This is called hanging indentation.
  • Authors’ names are inverted (last name first); give the last name and initials for all authors of a particular work for up to and including seven authors. If the work has more than seven authors, list the first six authors and then use ellipses after the sixth author’s name. After the ellipses, list the last author’s name of the work.
  • Reference list entries should be alphabetized by the last name of the first author of each work.
  • For multiple articles by the same author, or authors listed in the same order, list the entries in chronological order, from earliest to most recent.
  • Present the journal title in full.
  • Maintain the punctuation and capitalization that is used by the journal in its title.
    • For example: ReCALL not RECALL or Knowledge Management Research & Practice not Knowledge Management Research and Practice.
  • Capitalize all major words in journal titles.

(From OWL APA reference list: basic rules)

As you can see, the APA guide is more specific and rigorous than the MLA one. Specifically, it is important to pay close attention to the way you format the reference section and the body of your work when writing for APA standards.

MLA allows more broad choices on the author’s part about how a piece is constructed. APA is the opposite, and when working in this style it is crucial that the APA standards are maintained.


Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

Last, of the common styles, we have CMS, most often used in the Humanities and providing a flexible system of reference for a work utilizing a range of source types. Here is the OWL page with specific CMS details.

Citations in CMS demand less information and less rigorous in their requirements:

  • author (or editor, compiler, translator).
  • title.
  • publication information.

CMS is particularly useful for works using footnote and endnote annotation, as well as any work listing a range of sources from different media. OWL provides pages for different media to provide detailed information regarding citing those sources.

Just to make it easy…

Here is a great two-page PDF comparing all three styles side-by-side with examples:

Side by Side comparison

Maintaining Integrity

More than ever, taking an active role in ensuring your work is accurately cited is key. As self-publishing slowly overtakes traditional means, the need for authors to take responsibility for the finessing of their content will continue to grow.

Of course, all academic and research writers should be actively working to be certain their work is cited thoroughly and correctly. But there has, historically, been a sort of safety net in the form of proofreaders and editors. Self-publishing could remove some of those layers.

So, we must all be thoughtful and vigilant in providing accurate sourcing and in vetting those sources.

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