Three Rules of Citation

We’re all about citing our sources here in academia. No doubt you’ve heard of the MLA, Chicago, and/or APA style guides at some point in your education. There are many other style guides; each one has its strengths and limitations, and each discipline tends to have its preferences. Literary studies tend to use MLA or Chicago. I’m not here to recommend one over the other; you should do whatever your professor or publisher asks you to do.

Following the rules of a style guide has three advantages:  (1) you don’t have to make up your own system; (2) you can spend your energy on the bigger things (like argumentation and ideas); and (3) your readers, who probably use the same style guide(s), know how to parse the significance of your formatting (e.g., what italicization might indicate). Whichever guide you follow in citing your sources, be sure to do the following three things:

  1. Give credit where credit is due.

  2. Enable others to locate your sources.

  3. Whatever citation style you deploy, do so consistently.

Let’s unpack those three statements.

1. Give credit where credit is due. We want to make sure that we recognize the work of our scholarly predecessors. Here are a few cases where students sometimes don’t give full credit:

  • If you are citing the editorial notes in an edition, be sure to have an item on your list of works cited that starts with the editor’s name. If you quote from or point to an editorial stage direction, your parenthetical reference might be (Bevington 1.1.1 s.d.), for example. It would not be (Shakespeare 1.1.1), which would suggest that Shakespeare wrote the stage direction that David Bevington added.
  • If there are two or more authors on a paper, list them all in your Works Cited entry.

2. Enable others to locate your sources. You must give enough metadata (data about your source) for your reader to find each source you cite. Usually, we give more information than is necessary. These days, a DOI (digital object identifier) is theoretically enough to locate the source. However, most style guides ask for more information (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date for books, and author, title, journal title, volume, issue, date, and page range for articles). This latter information is more human-readable than a DOI.

3. Whatever citation style you deploy, do so consistently. Here are a few cases where I see inconsistencies:

  • In your Works Cited, give the same metadata for all items of the same type. Don’t give page numbers for one article and omit them for another (unless the latter does not have page numbers).
  • If you italicize book titles, always italicize book titles. Failure to do so suggests that the book is not a book.
  • If you put commas and periods inside quotation marks, always do so.
  • Don’t mix and match style guides. Unless you are the editor of a major publication or director of a digital project, you are not in a position to create and prescribe your own style guide.

One final note: style guides change over time. Check out this interactive timeline showing the history of MLA style!