Learning Strategies: Why Cite?

Citation Styles

Chances are, if you have ever attended a school in North America, you have been asked to cite your sources in papers. Why the emphasis on citation styles?

Correctly citing sources is important to participate in an intellectual conversation. You give credit to those you quote and those whose ideas you build upon so that others can find the same sources, or identify areas where you branched off an idea to make your own individual contribution, or where a researcher reading your work can contribute their own unique idea. All of these efforts contribute to the scholarly dialogue.

So, now that you know why it’s important to cite, why are there so many citation styles? Did you know that there were more than two? You might have heard of and used MLA and APA styles, but did you know about Chicago, Turabian, ASA, APSA, Associated Press Stylebook, ACS, AIP, ASME, IEEE and more!

The styles reflect the values of the discipline in which they are used. For instance, in work done in the Humanities, represented most often by MLA style (Modern Language Association), the author and subject are considered most important. That’s why in MLA style, the author’s complete name is used, and the title comes next in the citation. The date is often not considered critical in most humanities work, so it appears near the end of the citation. For example, a critical article written in 1960 about the Battle of the Bulge, or Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily or Shakespeare’s King Lear can be just as relevant to your research as a modern article.

In the sciences, represented by several citation styles including APA (American Psychological Association), currency is of utmost importance, so the date is the second item, after authors. Because in the sciences there are sometimes many authors for an article, the last name and first initial are used. The emphasis on the date makes sense in science. If you are researching medical information, would you trust an article on diabetes or mental health issues from 1960? No, because science and medicine have changed since then. It is imperative for your research to have the most recent article published in the field.

When you publish papers in scholarly journals, those journals will have instructions for their authors that may be uniquely their own style. Other countries may have their own citation styles (i.e., MHRA Style Guide in the United Kingdom). Professions have their own citation styles, like The Bluebook for Law.

For more specific style guides, go to that guide’s website (www.mla.org, www.apa.org) or to your publisher for specific instructions for authors.

By Jannette L. Finch
Librarian III
Lowcountry Graduate Center
and College of Charleston North Campus