Citation Guide: The Ultimate Tips for Proper Formatting

So you’re right there, trying to write a challenging paper.

When your professor says that you have to follow a very specific citation style on top of everything, the project might get overwhelming. It’s the final straw. You start thinking: “That’s enough. It’s too complicated. I can’t do this. Can’t I just list the sources or link to them? Why do I have to follow all these rules?”

Well, proper referencing is an inseparable fact of academic writing. It’s a project and your grade depends on it, so you simply have to follow the rules. If you fail to do that, your paper will be incomplete. If you fail to reference, you might even be accused of plagiarism.

So you’ll have to learn how to reference sources, whether you like it or not. Here’s the good news: it’s not that hard as it seems.

Why Citation Guides Are Necessary

You cannot write an academic paper without using sources of information, unless it’s a personal essay. Using sources is a skill you’ll have to master throughout your education. It’s not just because your teacher ask you to, but because it makes your arguments trustworthy.

Academic writing, in its essence, it’s about exploring ideas and facts. You’ll use them only to support your own ideas and arguments, but you still have to research. Since all work written by other people is protected with authorship rights, you’ll simply have to reference it.

No; you may not paraphrase it with the hopes to avoid plagiarism. That might get your content undetected through plagiarism search engines, but it won’t mean it’s not plagiarized and it will still get you in trouble.

Citations will add credibility to your writing. That’s why you have to use them.

Why Different Citation Styles Exist

There are at least three citation styles you’ll encounter throughout your studies: APA, MLA, and Chicago. Why do different professors ask for different styles?

The answer is quite simple: the expectations for citing information vary between academic disciplines.

  • The American Psychological Association (APA) style is used by psychology, education, and sciences.

  • The Modern Language Association (MLA) style is used for works in the humanities.

  • The Chicago (and its simplified form called Turabian) is used for works in the fine arts, history, and business.

This complicates things for students. It means you have to learn how to handle at least three different citation styles. The good news is that when you figure out how one of them works, you won’t have any trouble adjusting the format to another style.

When You Should Cite Your Sources

The easier question to answer is “when not to cite your sources.” If the information you include in your paper is common knowledge, then you don’t have to cite it. If you read somewhere that the Napoleonic Wars took place between 1803 and 1815, you don’t have to reference that source. It’s common knowledge.

But if you mention specific details and you paraphrase or summarize someone’s research, opinions, ideas, or concepts, then you absolutely need to provide a reference. You should also cite your source when you use a direct quote. Any charts, graphs, images, videos, or any other visuals in your paper should be referenced, unless you created them yourself.

The Three Major Citation Guides

Now that we covered the most important points regarding citations, let’s discuss the three main citation styles. We’ll list the most important rules, so you’ll easily notice the difference.

  1. APA (American Psychology Association) Style

This style was created in 1929, when a group of psychologists, business managers, and anthropologists recognized the needs of establishing regulated style rules for referencing sources. Their reason for doing this was improved reading comprehension of academic content.

There are few simple rules to remember:

  • For in-text citations in APA style, you should put the author’s last name and the date of publication in parentheses. We’ll take a research article as an example to use for all citation styles, so you’ll understand the differences. An APA in-text citation would look like this:

(Berns, Blaine, Prietula, & Pye, 2013)

If there was a single author, the citation would look like this:

(Berns, 2013)

But since there are multiple authors, you have to credit the entire team. When you cite work by three to five authors, you’ll name all of them only in the first in-text citation. For all further references, you’ll use this format:

(Berns et al., 2013)

  • The in-text citations are brief and don’t provide enough information for the reader. To help the reader find the actual sources you reference, you need to include a Reference List at the end of the paper. There, you’ll include all used sources. You’ll provide the list in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

This is the format for a complete reference:

Author, A., Author, B., Author C. (Year). Title of article. Title of Periodical, volume number(issue number), pages.

It seems complicated, right? Don’t worry; once you cite the first source according to that format, the rest of them will be easy. To follow our example, this is how it would look like in the reference list:

Berns, G. S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M. J., & Pye, B. E. (2013). Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain connectivity, 3(6), 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166

The doi part seems complicated, but you’ll find it in most journal articles you access.

  1. MLA (Modern Language Association) Style

The MLA Style Manual was first published in 1951. It’s a commonly used citation style in English studies, modern languages, literary criticism, cultural studies, media studies, and related niches.

  • In-text citations are needed for this format, too. But they are different when compared to the APA format. This time, you’ll include the author’s last name and the page number where your reference comes from. You’ll put the in-text citation in parentheses. This is how it would look like if we used the same example:

(Berns et al., 597)

If you use the author’s name in the sentence, you’ll only put the page number in parentheses.

According to Berns et al., “the timescale of the effect of a novel may be both short and long term.” (597).

  • In the MLA style, you don’t have a Reference List, but you have something similar. The page with full references is still found at the end of the article, but it’s called Works Cited Page. You will still list the entries in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. This is the format to follow:

Author. Title. Title of container (self contained if book), Other contributors (translators or editors), Version (edition), Number (vol. and/or no.), Publisher, Publication Date, Location (pages, paragraphs URL or DOI). 2nd container’s title, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication date, Location, Date of Access (if applicable).

That’s a slightly more complex citation than the one from the APA style, but that’s because the MLA style is usually used for books. This is how our citation would look like:

Berns, Gregory S. et al. “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” Brain Connectivity, vol. 3, no. 7, 2013, pp. 590-600., doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

As you notice, some of the elements from the guideline format were not applicable, so we just skipped them.

  1. Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style is most commonly used by students. It’s usually required in the discipline of history, but it’s applicable in most other disciplines, too.

  • The main thing that makes it different from the APA and MLA styles is that you’re required to include a note (footnote or endnote) whenever you use a source. So there are no in-text citation; just an indication that the reader should pay attention to a note at a specific spot in the text.

The first time you include a note, it will be lengthier. You’re required to include the full names of the authors, article title, journal title, and issue information (volume, issue number, month, year, and page numbers). Here’s an example:

Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” Brain Connectivity 3, no.6 (2013): 597.

When you cite the source more than once, you won’t repeat the full footnote. You’ll write it in a shortened version:

Berns, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” 597.

  • The good news is that when you have your footnotes ready, you won’t have much trouble creating the Bibliography. You’ll simply list all sources in an alphabetical list by the author’s last name. Here, you’ll start with the last name of the leading author:

Berns, Gregory S., Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” Brain Connectivity 3, no.6 (2013): 590-600. Doi: 10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

Let’s be honest: formatting is a diligent task. It’s not hard, but it demands tons of attention to details. Hey; you can do it! You just need the right guidelines to follow, and we just gave you those!

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