The Papers Trail

Controlling Your Reference Base

As you put together your initial reference base, plan your inquiry processes, carry out your research or project, and begin analyzing and verbalizing what you have learned. You are continually moving across research territory that others have already claimed. You need to navigate and negotiate very carefully. You must appropriately acknowledge the contributions of others (and do so in proper format), but you must allow and credit the contributions of your own mind. As you gain ideas of your own, you need to compare, contrast, and develop them in the context of the work of others in order to develop maximum strength and effectiveness. And while you are doing all this, additional hurdles keep coming up, as you must handle a good number of new conventions and formats.

This chapter focuses on the tricky business of managing that trail consisting of the articles, books, papers, presentations, and additional work of other researchers, a.k.a using and citing references correctly, accurately, and ethically. It begins with a discussion of why referencing the works of others is such an important aspect of professional participation. If you understand why, then when, where and how will probably fit into place fairly easily, and these are discussed as well.

The many components, contexts, and details of reference list format can seem a little overwhelming. Nobody I know has the entire lot memorized. However, the process of putting the reference list together can become a little easier if you get some general patterns down and only have to look up the exceptions. This handbook will not include all the rare exceptions, but you can easily find them in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) or on one of several web sites, including Purdue’s OWL (Online Writing Lab).

Why Cite?

If you were presenting a musical program for which you had written some of the pieces, you wouldn’t merely perform piece after piece as if you had written them all. Similarly, if you were displaying the works of other visual artists along with your own at an exhibition, you would carefully indicate the borrowed works with full credit for their creators. To imply that you had produced artistic works created by others would be blatantly unethical and dishonest. And you would deprive your audience of the benefit of becoming acquainted with other artists who might be of interest to them. In developing your paper, article, thesis, or dissertation, you are in a sense giving a recital or a show. All contributors must be acknowledged, and the audience should learn to appreciate their work as you do.

Reason 1: You Need to Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Ideas, opinions, observations, research, and data analysis and interpretation are as much the products of creative minds as songs or paintings. Although you may not have picked up your research sources with as much eagerness and fascination as you would a best-selling novel, the author has put a lot of work into that book or article, report, presentation, etc.; a lot of time, and a lot of critical, creative, and—believe it or not—actually imaginative thinking. The researcher has put in as much stress and deserves the same credit for his or her creation as does the composer, sculptor or playwright.

In deciding whether to make a citation to give credit, ask yourself these questions:

The following types of materials and resources are referenced under the ethical consideration of giving due credit:

Reason 2: You Need to Let a Reader Know Where to Learn More

Often a patron attending a concert will enjoy a new sound or new style enough to want to hear more of it. A quick glance at the program will provide the composer’s name so that recordings of the specific piece or of others by the same composer can be easily located.

Similarly, a reader encountering unfamiliar information may want to find more concerning that particular idea, approach, theory, line of research, etc. By learning where you found the discussion of these points, the reader will know where to go to learn more.

In every field there is widely known information that can be found in almost any authoritative work on the topic: for example, the observation that illiteracy is a common cause of juvenile crime or the fact that giving stimulant drugs is the most common treatment for children with ADHD. These points may not be well known to the individual on the street, but someone doing research would have no problem locating further information on them. We refer to these points as common knowledge. Something can be considered common knowledge if it could be found in at least five different sources. A reader would not have to go to the source where you found common knowledge points in order to see them validated and discussed. So you do not have to give your source, unless there is another reason for doing so.

In deciding whether to cite a source so that a reader can learn more about the topic, you may want to ask these questions:

The following types of materials are generally cited so that a reader can use your references in locating further information:

Reason 3: You May Need to Give Sources in Order to Fix Responsibility

If concert goers hear a new “sound” and aren’t sure whether they like it, they may glance quickly at the program to see who composed the piece. The credibility of the person who created the new style may well determine how seriously the audience considers it and how favorably they receive it. The same is true of information. If something is new, innovative, or unusual, a reader wants to know right away who takes responsibility for it.

In considering whether a source needs to be cited to place responsibility, you may want to consider these questions:

The following types of materials are generally cited to place responsibility:

Reason 4: You May Cite Some Sources to Put Your Ideas in Context and/or to Build Credibility

On most topics there are particular authors whom most researchers working in the area respect and expect. You need to show that you have consulted these widely acknowledged experts, and you need to show how your thinking relates to and is influenced by theirs.

In deciding whether you need to make a citation to build this credible reference base, you may want to consider these questions:

The following types of resources may be cited to build context and credibility:

How Do I Cite? How Do I Handle the Citation?

By considering the reasons for documenting your sources, you can understand the importance of working carefully into and out of the information you borrow from them and of being sure that such aspects as authorship and publication availability are handled correctly.

Precaution 1: Handle the Citation so that a Reader can Easily Tell Where Information Taken From a Source Begins and Ends

There are several advantages to introducing the source by author and date as you begin taking information from it:


If the context of the cited material makes the parameters easy to discern, citation of both name(s) and date can simply be placed at the end of the borrowing.

Obviously a summary of a study is self-contained, and many opinions and analyses are obviously uninterrupted. In such cases, if the author is well known then acknowledgement at the end may accomplish what your readers need. Using this form of citing when you can may help to avoid the “he said, she said” monotony that characterizes some academic writing.

If both name(s) and date are given in the text, no citation is necessary.


Precaution 2: Be Sure that Everyone Gets Due Credit and Takes Due Responsibility, Not Just the First or the Loudest

If your thesis or dissertation is turned into articles, you’ll want credit, even if you are not actually listed as first author. Be careful to give the same courtesy to other (perhaps fledgling) subsequent authors.

Follow APA conventions for listing multiple authors in the citation.

For a source with two authors, give both names every time.

For a source with six or more authors, give only the name of the first author plus et al.


If more than one author or group of authors treats a point that needs to be cited, group the sources in the same parenthesis in alphabetical order.


If you are using something cited or quoted by another author and you have not consulted the original source, be sure that you make this clear—for your own protection.

If the author of the article from which you got the information has distorted or misrepresented, he or she is responsible, and you will not get angry calls from the original author berating you for missing the point. Yes, indignant calls have been received when authors have pretended that they have gone to the original when they have not actually done so.


Precaution 3: Recognizing the Nature of Professional Expectations, Be Alert to Multiples and Overlaps

When an author becomes either very knowledgeable or very desperate for tenure or promotion, he or she may produce many book chapters, articles, presentations, etc. very quickly. You need to be sure that your readers can easily find the particular piece that you are citing.

Distinguish carefully between works by the same author or group of authors.

Differentiate authors with the same surname by using their initials in all citations, even if works were published during different years.

Even (perhaps especially) with well known husband/wife teams, you need to be sure that both names with accompanying sets of initials are given when appropriate.

If something has been accepted for publication but has not yet actually been published, put in press in parenthesis in the date position. If something is in process but has not been accepted, you can use in review, or being revised in the same position. Do not include the date until the work has actually come out.


Precaution 4: Remember that Anonymity and Eccentricity are Part of the Profession Too

When an organization is given as the author, put the name of the organization in the author

Spell out the name each time it is used unless the abbreviation is well known and easy to recognize.

For well-known abbreviations, give the full name followed by the abbreviation the first time, then the abbreviation in later citations.

When no author is given, cite by giving a short version of the title—just a few words.

The full title will be used in the author position on the reference list.

When the byline says “anonymous,” then cite “anonymous” in the author space both in the parenthetical reference and on the reference list.


Precaution 5: Give Page or CHapter Numbers for Direct Quotations


Precaution 6: Designate Personal Communications as Such; The Reader Will Just Have to Trust You

Not everything that informs a study or piece of writing comes from a published source. Much is learned from direct personal communication. These materials cannot be retrieved by your readers for close examination or verification, but they still need to be credited if they take you beyond common knowledge. The following may be included in this category:

Precaution 7. Avoid Leaving Blanks that May Seem Like Something Has Been Forgotten

If you don’t want your professor, graduate committee, or journal editor telling you to go back to the library and track something that cannot be tracked, you need to pass the buck to where it really belongs.

Electronic sources may not give page numbers.

Classical works are in a class by themselves. Often dates and occasionally authors are not known, and other aspects are assumed known or easily accessible.

Occasionally publication date is not given. To place the buck where it belongs, give the author with n.d. to indicate “no date” provided (Willliams & Willis, n.d.).

Precaution 8: When a Citation Ends a Sentence, Be Careful to Get it on the Right Side of the Period

With all the questions of ethics and accuracy that are involved with citations, one would think that whether a period comes before or after a citation should be rather insignificant. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Like the number of words in the abstract or the capitalization of words in various levels of headings, it’s a matter of professionalism. You do a thing a certain way because the profession expects it.

With APA format, when the material cited is embedded in a paragraph, the citation comes before the period. The period is considered to be your sentence-ending period, and the citation is part of the sentence.

Recent research has confirmed the findings (Rosenberg et al., 2004).

The study furnished “empirical support for the proposition” (Rosenberg et al., 2004, p. 17).

When a quotation is blocked, the citation follows the period. The period is considered to be part of the blocked quotation (the author’s period, not yours), so the citation is not part of the quoted sentence.

How Do I Handle the Reference List?

Preparing a reference list may feel like navigating an obstacle course, particularly if one has carelessly jotted down information with the idea of dealing with requirements and formats later. Often that “later” is right against the submission deadline, when patience is short and a trip to the library to locate an elusive page number in a returned book can be a major disruption.

Anticipate Needs and Provide for Them

Sometimes forethought can save you from later hassles, particularly if you are not a natural perfectionist and hate having to be a deadline-harassed unnatural one.

You may prepare your reference list as you go along rather than after you finish a chapter (or worse still, after you finish the entire project).

If advance preparation is not the way your mind works, check these things VERY carefully afterward.

Format the Reference List According to APA Conventions


Alphabetize Items on Reference List According to the Surname of the First Author; If Something is Unsigned, Begin with the Title and Alphabetize the Item inot the List by its First Significant Word

In capitalization conflicts, the trend is to simplify.

When dealing with prolific authors, remember that first comes first.

When you don’t have the author(s)’ name(s), use what you do have.


How Do I Remember All the Format Pieces?

There are so many little bits and pieces to remember in formatting that trying to memorize them all would probably put most of us in a padded cell. Thus textbooks and publication manuals sell their products, APA web sites get visited, and professors feel warm and knowledgeable because they know more of the little pieces than most of their students.

This is a not a guide for perfectionists who enjoy memorizing things they can easily look up. All of the little nittty-gritties of entering different types of government reports and off-beat web sites are not included; you won’t use them often, and you can easily find them in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) or one of the various APA-guidance web sites. What will be covered here are the basic patterns that will help you remember enough that (a) you won’t have to look up everything, and (b) you will have a basis through relationships to understand, locate, and eventually place what you do have to look up.

Position 1: Author (SUrnames, Initials, and Lots of Commas and Periods)


Position 2: Publication Year in Parenthesis


Position 3: Title - "Simplify, Simplify, Simplify" (Thoreau, 1854/1980)


Position 4: Publication Information - Or Lack of It (Who, Which, and Where)

For periodical materials, give all information necessary to locate the article.

Journals and other periodicals connect professionals from throughout the world. The good ones are current and reliable.

For books, include place of publication and publisher.

If the publisher is strong and the author/editor reputable, books are solid sources.

For reports, follow the title with any labels or numbers given by the organization of issue that would help a reader in locating the piece, followed by place and source of publication.

Reports provide rich data and important, innovative findings, particularly reports from entities or institutions with strong credibility.

If a doi number is given, include it at the end of the reference list entry.

An international publishing group has developed an identification system for digital network materials, known as digital object identifier (DOI). Every article is given “a unique identifier and underlying routing system” (APA, 2010), which links readers to information on desired topics, with embedded linking in the reference lists of articles published electronically. When a source with a DOI number is referenced, this identifier must be included at the end of the reference item. It is not followed by a period so that a period will not be misinterpreted as part of the number. The following example is quoted directly from the sixth edition of the APA manual.

Books and Articles





For a conference or symposium presentation, give the title of the conference and the city and state where it was held.


Theses and Dissertations

For theses and dissertations, give author, title, document type, university, and any information that will help the reader in accessing it.


Other Media

For other forms of dissemination give the same kinds of information you would give in any citation, but adapt.


Position 5: Retrieval Information (and Other Electronic Media Considerations)

You no longer need to give retrieval date!

Be sure the readers can easily retrieve your sources and locate any information they might want to verify or use to expand their thinking.

For a journal available in print that you used online, create a regular journal entry but add the URL if a doi is not available.

For a journal or other periodical published only electronically, use the regular article format (including volume, issue, and page numbers if available), followed by the URL.


For a non-periodical Internet document, give all information that is available, making it as obvious as you can what information is not available.

For non-periodical Internet items, the less information available, the more suspicious you need to be. Beware of sites that are not monitored or affiliated.




Yes, there are a lot of technicalities involved with documentation. You have to remember when to cite, how to set up a citation, how to organize and format the reference list, and—worse still—how to get the format right for all those little bits and pieces that readers need to know in order to locate your references quickly and efficiently—if indeed they want to locate the references at all. How can you possibly remember all of this?

Most of us can’t—or won’t. As with so many things in and out of academia, we remember what we use most and learn where to look up the rest. After you have done enough citations and reference list entries, you’ll remember the items that your particular project forces you to use often; you’ll be able to do them smoothly as part of the spontaneous drafting process. The more obscure things you can look up.

The sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) includes many more reference categories than the fifth edition. As the number of possible information sources has increased, ways that sources can be categorized and retrieved have increased as well. Since people use game reviews and blog posts to retrieve information for publications, and as a variety of archival systems have developed, the APA has chosen ways to have these matters documented consistently. You need to have the Publication Manual so that you can look up the formats for the less common types of sources when you need them. In addition to the areas treated in this book, you will find formats for the following:

You can include just as much variety and sophistication in your sources as you want. Just remember—you have to document the stuff.

Previous Citation(s)
Black, S. (n.d.). APA for novices: A struggling student's guide to theses, dissertations, and advanced course papers. David O. McKay School of Education. Retrieved from https://education.byu.edu/research/dissertation_aids.html
Sharon Black

Brigham Young University

Sharon Black is an editor and writing consultant for the McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University. Her past professional experience included writing for broadcast, teaching kindergarten and preschool, teaching advanced writing and research courses for the English Department and the McKay School, writing home study courses, and doing a variety of editing for BYU and LDS Church literacy projects.