13 Conventions for Citing Information

MLA and APA Documentation

Understand Conventions for Citing Information

Different academic disciplines and journals have unique formatting guidelines for citing sources and formatting research reports. Remarkably, there are hundreds of different formatting guidelines for referencing sources. This section addresses the most popular citation styles used in colleges and universities, MLA and APA.


Humanities professors commonly require citations to be formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) guidelines. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines set forth by the 8th edition of The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers .


Education and social science professors commonly ask students to follow the APA (American Psychological Association) style for citing and documenting sources. APA differs from MLA in a number of ways, including the overall structure and format of the essay, but the major distinction between the two is APA’s use of the year of publication, rather than the page on which a particular quotation appears, for the in-text citation. APA requires in-text publication dates because of the particular importance of a study’s currency to research reports in the social sciences. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines established by the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (10)

If you find that the rules of proper source documentation are difficult to keep straight, you are not alone. Writing a good research paper is, in and of itself, a major intellectual challenge. Having to follow detailed citation and formatting guidelines as well may seem like just one more task to add to an already-too-long list of requirements.

Following these guidelines, however, serves several important purposes.

  1. It signals to your readers that your paper should be taken seriously as a student’s contribution to a given academic or professional field; it is the literary equivalent of wearing a tailored suit to a job interview.
  2. It shows that you respect other people’s work enough to give them proper credit for it. Moreover, citation adds value to your work (credibility) and reciprocally to those you reference (validation).
  3. It helps your reader find additional materials if he or she wishes to learn more about your topic.

You can simplify the process if you keep these broad guidelines in mind:

  • Use a research log or journal for keeping track of your sources early in the research process to save time later on.
  • Use citation tools to collect, format and organize bibliographic information as you conduct your research.
  • Get it right the first time. Apply style guidelines as you write, so you will not have much to correct during the editing stage. Use a citation tool such as Zotero to collect citations and organize your research. Putting in a little extra time early on can save time later.
  • Use the resources available to you. In addition to the guidelines provided in this module, you may wish to consult the APA websiteor the Purdue University Online Writing lab , which regularly updates its online style guidelines. (11)

Academic Dishonesty

Academic dishonesty incorporates the following:

  • Cheating: Giving or taking of any information or material with the intent of wrongfully aiding one’s self or another in academic work considered in the determination of course grade or the outcome of a standardized test.
  • Plagiarism: Act of stealing or passing off as one’s own work the words, ideas or conclusions of another as if the work submitted were the product of one’s own thinking rather than an idea or product derived from another source.

Other forms of academic dishonesty include falsifying records or data, lying, unauthorized copying, tampering, abusing or otherwise unethically using computer or other stored information, and any other act or misconduct which may reasonably be deemed to be a part of this heading. (1)


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