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Citing Sources

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Why Are There So Many Citation Styles?

BibMe.org offers students the option of using literally thousands of citation styles for their papers. You might be thinking to yourself, “Why do we need so many styles?,” or “Who could possibly want to use a citation style called ‘Yeast’?” Let’s take a look at some of these styles, and learn how each one plays a specific role in academic writing and research.

Different citation styles support different areas of study

Over time, different disciplines in academia have come to prefer certain citation styles over others. For instance, MLA format is widely used in the humanities, since the style is well-suited to citing literature and archival sources. Conversely, APA format is widely used in the social sciences, since the style performs well with quantitative studies and analysis.

Certain styles can have multiple citing systems

One reason that it appears that the number of citation styles is so vast is because of the possibility of different formatting systems within the same style. For example, Chicago style actually has two different sub-styles: author-date and footnote-bibliography. The footnote-bibliography system can be commonly found in humanities courses, whereas the author-date system has a more broad application.

Different papers appeal to different types of audiences

One reason that we can’t simply have one uniform citation style is that each academic paper can appeal to a vastly different audience than another. Since researchers working in different areas are writing for a specific audience, such as a science professor or fellow scientist, they want to make sure that their citations clarify information and sources that are most highly valued in their subject area. A writer in the social sciences would be more likely to cite a scholarly article than a writer in the humanities focusing on archival materials, so their citation system should match this.

There is an element of tradition in citation styles

One of the many reasons that there are so many citation styles is simply that many have been in publication for generations. The Chicago Manual of style, for instance, traces its roots back to 1906. That means that writers and researchers in these disciplines have come to rely on a specific citation style when creating their work, and could be reluctant to try a different one.

Which Citation Format Should I Use?

So, you’re writing a paper and want to make sure that you’re citing your sources correctly. Great! Ensuring that you properly cite and reference your sources will prevent lost marksor even a failed paper, or worsefor accidental plagiarism. However, in order to correctly cite your sources, you first need to know which citation format to use.

There are numerous citation styles, although MLA format, APA format and Chicago/Turabian are the most commonly used.

The bottom line, when deciding which citation format to use, ask your teacher or professor. They’re the person best placed to advise you, as the preferred style often depends on the subject in question. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect a university or college to ask for the same citation format across the board. You should also be careful not to assume that assignments for your major and minor subjects require you to use the same style of citations. If in any doubt, ask!

To give you a general idea, here’s a breakdown of citation formats and the subjects that they’re usually used for:

Popular Formats

  • APA Format (American Psychological Association) – Used for social science subjects such as psychology, criminology, business and journalism.
  • MLA Format (Modern Languages Association) – Used for literature and humanities subjects such as literature, philosophy, religion, theater and communications.
  • Chicago Manual of Style – Used in humanities and social sciences such as anthropology, art history, business, computing, criminology, history, philosophy and religion.
  • Turabian Style – A variation of Chicago Manual of Style used across humanities, social sciences and natural science subjects such as art history, history and music.

Less-Commonly Used Formats (single subject specific)

  • Harvard Business School — business

  • ACS (American Chemical Society) — chemistry
  • AIP (American Institute of Physics) — physics
  • ALWD (Association of Legal Writing Directors) — law
  • AMA (American Medical Association) — medicine<
  • AMS (American Mathematical Society) — math
  • APSA (American Political Science Association) — politics, international studies
  • ASA (American Sociological Association) — sociology
  • AP (Associated Press) — journalism, PR
  • Bluebook — legal studies
  • CSE (Council of Science Editors) — biology
  • LSA (Linguistics Society of America) — linguistics
  • Maroonbook — legal studies
  • NLM (National Library of Medicine) — medicine

As you’ll note from the above list, there’s some subject crossover with the popular citation formats. Others are very subject specific. Whichever subject you’re studying at your college or university, check your teacher’s preference before undertaking the task of creating your citations — time is precious as a busy student, and the last thing you want is to have to complete the same task twice, or lose marks unnecessarily.

Once you know which citation style you need to select, head over to the BibMe’s citation generator for help with their creation.

What Source Type Should I Choose?

Technology has changed the way students and teachers alike conduct research. With so many ways to digest information, it can be difficult to decide what category a source fits into. For instance, if you access a magazine article on a website, do you cite the source as a magazine article, or as a website? What about a photograph of a sculpture? Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when you are struggling to determine the proper format for your source:

1. If you get stuck on how to cite your source, always keep in mind what the source actually is. It is almost always better to cite a source by following its original form.

For example, you have an online magazine article. How do you cite it?

If you have a magazine article that you found online and can’t decide how to cite it, it is better to cite it as a magazine article, as that type of citation will always provide the reader of a clear understanding of where you conducted your research and found your information.

2. You should also consider citing the container of the source (see MLA format). A citation for an online magazine article, for instance, could contain information on both the magazine article and the website that reprinted it. See your citation style manual for more information on this topic.

If you still can’t tell what type of source you are dealing with, see the following info.

If you have a hard copy of your source:

If you can hold a copy of your source in your hands, such as a book, you should cite the source according to that source type’s rules. If, however, you have a printout of a section of a larger source, remember the following hints:

  • Look at the bottom of the page for a full or partial URL.  If you see one, use that to track down the original source.
  • If no URL is present, find an important sentence and copy it into a Google search. The search should let you know what type of source your material is.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between journal articles and book chapters when you only have a printout. To tell the difference:
    • Journal articles usually include a lot of information on the first page. Look for full citation information, contact information for the author(s), or information about when the article was submitted, revised and accepted.
    • Journal articles will (sometimes) provide more information on interior pages, such as the author’s last name or an abbreviated article title or journal title.
    • Book chapters usually include only the author’s name and chapter title on the first page of the chapter.

If you found your source in a database:

Most databases and research tools will identify the proper source type for your piece of material. You just need to know where to look. Two things to keep in mind:

  • The databases rely on information from the publishers to identify the source type. This information is not always accurate.
  • There is no consistent vocabulary used to describe source types. Look for keywords like “print” or “article.”

If you found your source on a website:

These days, most traditional print sources, such as newspapers, also have a website. Those websites can replicate print content or provide unique, web-only content. Therefore, it can be difficult to differentiate between original and reprinted writing. For example, is a blog post on a newspaper’s website a blog post, or is it a newspaper article?

  • First, look to see if you can find an “about us” page on the website. This could hold a lot of valuable information about the publisher, which could lead to more clarification on what the source is. For example, if the about us page shows that the publisher is a news agency, then you know you’re dealing with a source related to newspapers.
  • You can also try going to the site’s homepage. This should give you more valuable information about the publisher.
  • Type the organization’s name into a Google or Wikipedia source. The history of the organization or publisher should let you know what kind of works they typically publish.

  • Still confused? Your librarian should be able to answer any question you may have regarding citing sources.

    Citations Cheat Sheet

    Citations, along with grammar, punctuation, research, and exam preparation, are an essential part of academic life. However, with different citation rules for different institutions, different subjects, and different types of sources, it can be hard to keep track of the terminology involved.

    Don’t worry! We’ve put together a quick citation vocabulary cheat sheet which should come in handy if your tutor or classmates mention a term that leaves you feeling confused. To keep things simple, all examples will refer to a book as the source. When using a different source type, you can find citing help via BibMe.org.


    Ok, this one should be easy. A citation is a way to reference any sources that you’ve used while researching and writing your paper, project, or any other piece of academic work. You need to think about both in-text citations and also supplying a full citation (sometimes called a reference in some citation styles) on a reference list, works cited list, or bibliography.

    APA style

    Short for American Psychological Association, APA is one of the most popular citation styles. It’s most commonly used within science subjects.

    MLA style

    Short for Modern Language Association, MLA is one of the most popular citation styles. It’s most commonly used within English and humanities subjects.

    Chicago style

    Chicago Manual of Style citations are most commonly used within history and humanities subjects. There are two different types of citations which fall under Chicago style: author/date and footnote/bibliography.

    In-text citation

    In-text citations sit within the body of your work (often within parentheses), usually following a direct quote or paraphrased information. They give the reader basic information about the source, which may include the author, the date of publication (for some styles of citation), and the page number if relevant.

    APA style in-text citation example:

    “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” said Gandalf (Tolkien, 1954, p. 20).

    MLA style in-text citation example:

    “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” said Gandalf (Tolkien 20).

    Note that, if the author is referenced within the sentence, you don’t need to include the author’s name in parentheses.

    Reference list / Works cited list

    Your reference list or works cited list is where the full information on your sources is included. All of the  in-text citations in the body of your paper should have a corresponding full citation in the reference/works cited list.

    The information given on the reference/works cited list should allow the reader to easily look up your source. Additional information that might be given here could include the author’s full name, the full title of the source, the name of an editor or translator, publisher, and place of publication, depending on the citation style being used.

    APA citation example:

    Shakespeare, W. (1996). Hamlet. T. J. Spencer (Ed.). London, England: Penguin Books.

    MLA citation example:

    Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by George Richard Hibbard, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp 18-22.


    A bibliography differs from a reference list or works cited list in that it includes details of every source that you used when writing your paper or essay, even if you haven’t quoted or paraphrased from that source. For example, a tutor might request a bibliography if you’re writing a paper that requires a lot of background reading and research. It would show them exactly what materials you have consulted, and prove that you’ve put in the hard work, even if you don’t have in-text citations referring to every source.

    Annotated bibliography

    An annotated bibliography includes a citation for each source, followed by a brief paragraph. Information within this paragraph could include anything that you feel might be useful for the reader to know. For example, you could include some information on why you feel the source is relevant to your work, or report on the accuracy or quality of the source.

    Source type

    This term refers to the type of material that you have used within your work (and wish to cite). Common source types include books, images, websites, and articles, but you can cite anything from a political speech to a movie.

    Primary source

    A primary source is an original work such as a recording, photograph, newspaper article written from a firsthand experience, or letter. An example of a primary source is actual text of the Magna Carta or photographs of King Tut’s tomb taken by Howard Carter and his team.

    Secondary source

    A secondary source is an interpretation or evaluation of a primary source, such as a biographical work, analysis of a study, or review. An example of a secondary source is an interpretation of the Magna Carta. Another example is a present day article analyzing Howard Carter’s photographs.

    Tertiary source

    A tertiary source is a collection/interpretation of primary and secondary sources, such as a textbook, manual, or directory. Note that some types of sources, such as textbooks for example, can be either secondary or tertiary, depending on their content. An example of a tertiary source is a book all about the Magna Carta and its effects on the world.


    An online database is a collection of digital information. In libraries, databases are usually comprised of digital articles, research papers, videos, or photographs. These sources are useful when researching for a paper.


    Paraphrasing refers to the expression of an idea in your own words. It’s important to remember to still cite your sources when paraphrasing.


    When you repeat someone else’s words, work, or idea exactly as it appears in your source, this is known as quoting. Put quotes in quotation marks and include an in-text citation.


    Summarizing refers to the condensing of an idea to express it more succinctly. If you’re summarizing someone else’s work or ideas, you still must cite your source.


    And finally, this is a really important one. Plagiarism refers to the passing off of someone else’s work, words, or ideas as your own, and is the very thing that citation is designed to avoid. Using a plagiarism checker and citation creator like the ones at BibMe.org is an easy way to ensure that all of your sources are properly cited and your paper is 100% plagiarism free.

    Fun Citation Trivia!

    Citations isn’t a word that screams fun. You wouldn’t choose to do citations over watching a video or texting a friend. And yet, citations at their core are anything but boring! They are so much more than just their style rules, and are an incredibly effective tool in most academic disciplines.  

    Have you ever wanted to know why there are so many citation styles or how citations came to be in the first place? Keep reading to discover the answers and other interesting facts about citations!

    1. Citations have been around for a long time

    Making citations for sources is anything but new. In the 1600s, the act of making citations became defined as the “act of quoting a passage from a book, etc.” The word “citations” can trace its roots to the Latin word “citare,” which means “to summon, urge, call; put in sudden motion, call forward; rouse, excite.” It is interesting to think about how authors have been making citations for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years! 

    2. There are thousands of citation style options

    You likely find yourself needing to cite in one or two of the same citation styles, such as APA or MLA format. But did you know that there are over 7,000 citation styles to choose from? And the list grows regularly. With so many options, it can be difficult to decide which to use. If you’re unsure which one to select for your next paper, it is always a good idea to consult with your professor.

    3. Some citation styles are very unique

    Citation styles can be very uniquely named, or apply to a very specific publication or industry. For example, the style “Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society” is a style that is only used by that particular organization. There are also citation styles that have unusual names, such as “Blood.” This citation style is used by a journal for the study of hematology.

    4. There are citation styles named for people

    Most citation styles are named for organizations that publish them. For example, APA is named for the American Psychological Association.  Did you know, however, that some citation styles are named for individual people? The best example of this is Turabian style, which was named for its author Kate L. Turabian, who modeled the style after Chicago Manual of Style rules.

    5. Citation styles can change over time

    While citations are always an important piece of the writing process, the specific citation style rules can change over time. For example, just this year, nearly 50 new citation styles were added, and there were over 100 edits to existing citation styles. This is another reason why it is super important to confirm your needed citation style with your professor before handing in your paper.

    6. Millions of citations are created on BibMe each year

    This past fall semester alone, there were approximately 11.8 million citations made on BibMe. That’s over 8 times more citations than there are people living in the state of Hawaii. That’s a lot of citations!

    Finished with your citations and paper? Check out the handy BibMe Plus grammar checker and plagiarism tool! It can help you find mistakes and improve your paper. Haven’t started writing yet? Read our grammar guides to learn what is a verb, an adjective definition, gender pronouns, and other grammar-related topics.

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