Tompkins Cortland Community College



This lesson was created by Barbara Kobritz, Instructional Services Librarian at TC3. Comments may be emailed to

In this lesson we will break down the process of citation and look at it step-by-step:

  1. understanding what a format is;
  2. matching your sources to the right models;
  3. using the models correctly;
  4. matching works cited to in-text citations.

1. What is a Citation Format?

When you get an assignment to do a research project you will be required to include a bibliography, a list of all the sources you used. Your teacher will specify a format for the bibliography.

A format is simply a set of rules agreed upon by a community of scholars. Scientists do not use the same rules as sociologists. There are at least 5 different organizations publishing defined citation formats:

  • MLA - Modern Language Association
  • APA - American Psychological Association
  • ASA - American Sociological Association
  • CSE - Council of Science Editors
  • Turabian - University of Chicago Press

Why so many formats?

A community of researchers (sociology, sciences, humanities) agrees on a way of doing things to facilitate communication in their field. There’s nothing sacred about one method or another. It’s just an agreement about how to do things, like a road sign system or rules for a card game.

The five formats we mentioned earlier are like five versions of a language:

  • Each one can communicate the same things
  • Each has its own way of communicating
  • If you understand one, you’ll be able to understand the others

It's not all that different from speaking a language. People from the U.S, Britain, Australia and India all speak English, although somewhat differently. These "formats" of English have more in common than not and if you’re fluent in one version you can understand the others.

Citation formats have differences, but thy have one overarching thing in common:

They all use the same elements to create a citation.

The elements of the citation are things like author, title, publication date…things that describe an information source such as a book, an article, or a web site.

Different formats will put elements in a slightly different order with different punctuation, but they all use the same elements.

Using Your Handbook

When you get a research assignment make sure you know what format the teacher wants you to use for your bibliography. If it’s not included in the instructions, ask. Then make sure you have a handbook that addresses that format. Some handbooks -- such as Keys for Writers or Diana Hacker’s Pocket Style Manual -- have abbreviated versions of several different styles. Others are a more in-depth treatment of just one style. If you don’t have the handbook you need visit the Library or the Baker Center to see what’s available there. The Library has the MLA Handbook, the Turabian Manual for Writers, the Sociology Student Writer’s Manual and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association available for your use.

In this lesson it is not our purpose to repeat what your handbook has already done thoroughly and well. Our hope is that we can help you understand better how to use your handbook, and point out some things that will make the process easier. We will refer repeatedly to handbooks and the lesson will make more sense if you have your handbook available and refer to it whenever you read the phrase, “Open your handbook.” Let’s start.

2. Sources and Models

There are two steps to creating a correct citation

  • Finding the right model

  • and

  • applying it correctly to your source item.

Both steps cause students problems.

Let’s think first about how to find the right model to follow. Each handbook has a long list of types of sources you might want to cite, and for each type it provides a model. For example, here is a small part, 15 entries, of the list of sources from the MLA Handbook

4.6.1 The Basic Entry: A Book by a Single Author
4.6.2 An Anthology or a Compilation
4.6.3 Two or More Books by the Same Author
4.6.4 Book by Two or more Authors
4.6.5 Two or More Books by the Same Authors
4.6.6 A Book by a Corporate Author
4.6.7 A Work in an Anthology
4.6.8 An Article in a Reference Book
4.6.9 An Introduction, a Preface, a Foreword, or an Afterword
4.6.10 Cross-References
4.6.11 An Anonymous Book
4.6.12 An Edition
4.6.13 A Translation
4.6.14 A Book Published in a Second or Subsequent edition
4.6.15 A Multi-volume Work

There are a lot of choices and your task is to match your source to the right one.

Start by breaking things down into these four areas:

  1. Books
  2. Articles from newspapers, magazines and journals
  3. Web sites (and other electronic sources)
  4. Everything else

Open Your Book: Check the list of models in your handbook and see if you can find how the list is broken up. Maybe the sections in your handbook are broken out a little differently.

Sources and Models: Books

Simple book citations are the easiest citations to create. You need to know five things:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Publisher
  • City of publication
  • Year of publication

You’ll find all this information on the title page, at the very front of the book. Most often the title, author, publisher and city are on the front of the title page and the year is on the back.

Open Your Book: In your handbook, find the model for a simple book citation.

Not all books are quite this simple. When you want to cite a book, look through the entire list of possible book models first and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this book have an editor rather than an author?
  2. Is it a multi-volume book?
  3. Is it a book that has been published in more than one edition?

Let’s look at each of these concepts separately and give examples for each.

Types of Books

Question 1: Does the book have an editor rather than an author?

An editor brings together chapters or selections from several different authors. The editor may also write a few chapters of an edited book, but their main role is to bring together other authors’ work into a useful volume. Your citation models will ask you to show the difference between an author and an editor.

Open Your Book: In your handbook, where is the model for a book with an editor rather than an author?

Question 2: Is it a multi-volume book?

What we normally call a "book", (pages bound into a cover) is more accurately called a "volume". Some "books" comprise several volumes. If you are citing a multi-volume book, use that model and specify the volume you are citing.

Open Your Book: In your handbook, where is the model for a book with several volumes rather than one?

Question 3: Is it a book that has been published in more than one edition?

You have many convenient examples of subsequent editions – your textbooks. They are often designated as the third edition, sixth edition, etc. An edition is an updated version of the same book. Subsequent edition means any edition after the first one and the citation model requires that the edition be noted.

Open Your Book: In your handbook, find the model for a book in a subsequent(not the first) edition.

Combining Models

Sometimes you have to use more than one model to create a single citation. Think about it. For example: What if you are using a model for a citation for a multi-volume book, but as it happens you used the second or third edition? You have to look at both the multi-volume model and the subsequent edition model to get all the pieces for this citation.

Open Your Book: In your handbook, find the model for a multi-volume book. Now find the model for an edition other than the first. How would you create a citation for volume two of the third edition of a book?

No handbook is ever going to give you every possible combination. It would go on for 1000 pages! When it shows you how to do something (for example, more than one author) on a simple book model, that’s how you do more than one author on any source -- book, article, web site or anything else.

Here’s a tip: If you have questions that aren’t addressed by the model you’re using, look back in your handbook to the beginning of the section on creating citations. Usually there is a section provided there with general rules (like date format and author format) that apply to all citations.

Sources and Models: Articles

You have to go through a similar process with articles – look down the entire list of possible models and find the one most like your source. First of all you need to know whether the article came from a newspaper, a magazine or a journal. If you have the article in its original paper format in your hands, it may be quite obvious whether it’s a newspaper, magazine or journal. But when you get your articles from electronic databases it’s harder to tell.

Here are a couple of good rules of thumb:

  • If the article ends with a long list of references to other books and articles it is from a scholarly journal.
  • Newspaper names almost always consist of the name of the city followed by a title such as Post or Times, e.g. New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Ithaca Journal, Cortland Standard.

These suggestions aren’t foolproof. If you’re not sure, ask your teacher, a tutor or a librarian for help.

Your format may call for some slight differences in how you treat these three types of articles – journal, newspaper or magazine – especially with regard to the date. Journals almost always have a volume number and an issue number. The volume usually indicates how many years the journal has been publishing. In any given year (volume) the issues are numbered consecutively.

So, for example, if I see a citation with numbers that look like this:

37(3) or 37.3,

I know that the article was in the third issue of the 37th year of publication for that journal.

Here’s a tip: Issue and number mean the same thing. Volume 67 Issue 4 is exactly the same thing as Volume 67 Number 4.

Back in the old days -- before the Internet -- libraries took all the issues of a magazine or journal for a given year and bound them into a book, or a volume. Every journal is like a multi-volume book with one volume added each year. (Or every six months if it’s a fat one.) In large research libraries you can find these volumes, called bound periodicals, on the shelf stretching back 100 years or more. The TC3 Library has a much smaller collection, shelved in the group study room

Why Worry About Volume and Issue?

We’re stopping to explain this rather old-fashioned concept because you will need to understand it when you try to create citations for journals. If you try a quick search for scholarly journals in one of our databases and look at some of the results right after the name of the journal there will be something like this:

v47 i3 p132(14)

indicating that the article was published in volume 47, issue 3, started on page 132, and ran for 14 pages. Knowing how to read this, and what it means, should make your citation task easier.

Another reason to understand the volume and issue concept is that it’s not quite as old-fashioned as it seems. Journals that publish online, have never been published in paper and have never been bound into volumes use the same numbering system.

  • The first issue is Volume 1 Issue 1.
  • The next issue is Volume 1 Issue 2 and so on through the first year.
  • The second year starts with Volume 2 Issue 1 and so on and on.

Newspaper and Magazine Articles

Journals usually use a volume and issue numbering system, but newspapers and magazines may or may not. Regardless of how the publication numbers its issues, volume and issue are rarely part of the citation for newspaper and magazine articles in any format.

Open Your Book: Look in your handbook at the section for articles. What are the differences between newspaper, magazine and journal citations? In the format you’re using do magazines require a volume and issue number?

Some formats require you to distinguish between certain types of articles in the same publication - such as reviews, letters and editorials. When citing an article, check the various models available to see if there is a special one for the type of article you have

Open Your Book: In your handbook, find the models for newspaper articles. Is there a separate entry for a review? An interview? An obituary? How many different types of articles have a special format?

Articles From A Database

Online databases, such as ProQuest and InfoTrac, make citation more complex.

You can read an article in the paper version of Time magazine in the library. To cite it you need the author, article title, magazine name, date and page.

You can read that exact same article in a database. To cite it you need all the print citation information, PLUS the name of the database, the date you accessed the article and perhaps other elements, depending on your format.

This idea of articles being available online is a relatively new one and the rules are still developing. The model you are using may require

  • the name of the database,
  • the database company that provides the database to your library,
  • the name and location of your library,
  • the date you accessed the article,
  • and the URL (web address) for the database company;
  • OR they may ask simply for the name of the database;
  • OR any combination in between.

Compare the way an article retrieved from a database would be cited in two different formats. MLA requires a full citation as if the article came from a print source, followed by the name of the database, the provider of the database (e.g. InfoTrac is provided by the Thomson Gale Company); the library where the database was accessed, the date the article was retrieved, and the homepage of the database company. By contrast, APA requires the same full citation followed simply by the date of retrieval and the database.

Open Your Book: Find the page in your handbook that shows how to cite an article retrieved from an online database (also called a subscription service) and mark it. You will probably use this model more than any other.

Sources and Models: Web Sites

Systems for citing books and articles have developed over hundreds of years. With web sites we are unfortunate enough to be starting from scratch. Manuals will give you some guidelines but they can’t be precise because people who create web pages don’t do it in a standard way, at least not yet. Perhaps in a few hundred years we’ll look back on this and laugh, but for right now it’s painful.

For web sites, manuals usually give you a list of elements that should be included - if available. Authors and dates of publication are notoriously hard to find on web sites. However there are at least three elements you will always have:

  1. The title of the document (technically the words that appear in the very top blue bar of your browser window),
  2. The date you accessed it,
  3. The URL (web address).

Whatever else the model asks for should be given in the order requested. If you don’t have a certain piece of information, skip it.

Here’s a tip: When you find a good web page, print it out and keep it with your research for your project. Unlike books and articles, web pages disappear and you may be very glad later on that you have the web page to refer to, both for the information you want and for the citation.

Sources and Models: Other Sources

Once we move beyond books, articles and web sites it's hard to generalize. You may be citing a map, a painting or an interview, each one a unique type.

But each of these less common types is pretty straightforward, unlike books or articles (and certainly web sites!) in all their variety.

By now, you can probably guess that we are going to advise you to look down the list of possible models and choose the best one.

3. Using the Model

So far we have been talking about choosing the right model. That’s the hardest part by far. But we also see students stumble fairly often on copying the model correctly.

Copying isn’t hard to do. We do it quite naturally even as very young children. However it’s harder to copy something when you don’t understand what it means. In order to understand better what you’re copying, break it down into elements (things like author, title, and date) and handle them one at a time.

For example, for a book citation in APA format you need five elements:

  1. Author
  2. Title
  3. City of publication
  4. Publisher
  5. Date of publication

Look for these elements on the title page of the book (front and back) to get started.

Now...for each element ask yourself two questions:

1. How are the words in the element handled? They may be either

  • Plain type OR
  • Italics or underlined (used interchangeably) OR
  • In quotes

2. What kind of punctuation is used after the element?

  • Period OR
  • Comma OR
  • Colon  OR
  • Is the entire element in parentheses

For each element that’s all you have to figure out - those two things.

So, putting it all together, to cite any source:

  1. Find the right model(s) in your handbook.
  2. Take the elements in order.
  3. For each element, pay attention to italics, quotes, parentheses and punctuation.

4. In-text Citation

Once your citations are all done according to your handbook - you still have one more step. You have to tell your reader explicitly which ideas came from which source. Every direct quote, paraphrase or use of an author’s idea requires a brief in-text citation, directing the reader to the full citation for the relevant source.

Here’s a tip: In-text citation may also be referred to as:

  • Signal phrase OR
  • Parenthetical reference OR
  • Cited material OR
  • Citing within the text OR
  • Abbreviated Style

In some formats the in-text citation is a small number at the end of the sentence raised a little bit above the normal text. The placement above the text is known as superscript.

That little number tells your reader to read the note with the same number, either at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the paper. In this system, in-text citation number 5 refers to note number 5.

In other formats the in-text citation is a parenthetical note at the end of the sentence containing the author’s name and the page the quote or idea was taken from. For example, if you put (Dean 92) at the end of a sentence that tells your reader to look in the list of citations for something written by Dean and find the relevant information on page 92 of that publication.

Your manual will describe in detail how to make sure the in-text citations match up to the references you cite at the end of your paper, for example what to do when you have two sources from the same author.

Open your book: Look in your manual for the section that describes in-text citation. Which of these two systems is used?

Citation Tools

Here are some tools you may want to check out to help with citation:

1. Database help

Some databases now have a function that gives you the citation for the article you have on the screen. Citation tools may be difficult to locate in the database and they are not 100% accurate, but if you are interested a librarian will help you find them. This type of service will do some of the work for you. Instead of generating the citation from scratch, you can let the database get it started and then check it for accuracy. You still have to know what you’re doing.

2. Automatic Citation Generators

There are several types of paid software out there that will generate citations. Some of these systems are quite pricey. Here are two that are not:

    Landmark Citation Machine []
    As with the services in the databases you still have to know what you’re doing. You have to tell the system what type the source is; and you have to enter all the elements in a webform correctly. It will then do the formatting for you, including an in-text citation. Landmark Citation Machine is free.
    NoodleBib []
    Again, you have to answer a lot of questions about the source before getting the citation. At their website you can look through a free demonstration to get the feel. Click on NoodleBib6. You can subscribe for about $1/month.
    Citation Guides Online []
    The library maintains a collection of online citation guides for you to refer to at /library/citation_guides.asp

One Final Thought

Although this may be obvious by now, here’s one parting thought: Citation takes time. Plan ahead.

As soon as you know for sure that you are going to use a particular source, create the citation for it. Even if you haven’t written a word of your paper yet, why not open a new word processing document and create citations as you go along for the sources you know you’ll use? It will help you feel like you’ve gotten started on the project and, come crunch time, four or five completed citations will save you a good hour of work.

Learning the basics of citation will save you time, but if you have trouble with the citation for a particular source, the librarians are always happy to help you.

If you have any questions or would like some help finding good sources for your topic, talk with a librarian.

Here's how you can find us:

  1. Come see us at the library: Current hours are posted on the Library Home Page.
  2. By Phone: 607.844.8222, Extension 4363
  3. By Email:
  4. On the Web. On every page on our site, there's a link to Ask-A-Librarian. Post your question. We'll respond within one business day.

Copyright 2005 Tompkins Cortland Community College

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