Academic Citations for Beginners, Part One: Understanding Style Guides

Citing sources in scholarly articles can be confusing the first time around, especially if there is little to no training involved. However, with some practice it can become second nature. These next four weeks I am doing a post series as a very basic guide to academic citation using a style guide.

In this first post, we will be discussing what a style guide is and how it can help. A style guide is a handbook designed as a reference for writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, and publishers as a consensus on the structural elements of writing. You might remember using one in some of your first composition classes, but most scholarly writers don’t use them until they are looking to get published. Either way, a style manual is an indispensable tool when it comes to organizing academic writing. The first thing to establish is what particular style guide you will be using, which will dictate the formatting of the rest of the document. Here are some popular examples for American usage*:

  • Chicago Manual of Style:  General purpose manual extensively used in book publishing and the humanities.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA): More commonly used in the hard sciences, but is also used widely among the social sciences and education.
  • Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual: Not as common as Chicago or APA, but still used frequently in scientific writing.

Though style may not be discussed as often in dissertation or classroom writing, it is essential for journal articles and other published materials that may be in use later on. Therefore, having a knowledge of style might save you some trouble during the drafting process. Also, it can be indispensable if you are editing your own materials. If you’re unsure which style guide to use, email the managing editor or check the FAQ page on the website of the journal or press you’re planning on submitting to. Often times there is an additional house style that is encouraged, but you won’t need to worry about that until the final editing stage.

Here are some common questions or statements regarding style manuals:

Where can I find style guides?

Style guides, especially in hardcover book form, do not come cheap, but they can be found in most local libraries in the reference section. Some style guides, such as Chicago can be accessed online through subscription, which is a great option because it is portable and often carries the most up-to-date information.

I thought style guides were just for grammar or formatting reference lists.

Not necessarily. Style informs all sorts of choices, such as the italicization of foreign words, graphs, tables, and treatment of numbers within written texts. Though style guides are presented more as guidelines for written English as opposed to steadfast rules, they are still useful for making informed decisions within written composition.

How do I use one as an academic researcher?

There are three major important areas within a style manual I am going to cover in this post series which should give you a basic introduction: in-text citations, reference lists vs. bibliographies, and quotations. If you decide to incorporate these techniques, I guarantee you will have a much easier time when it comes to editing your document.

Happy writing! See you next week with an in-depth look at in-text citations.

*If you are writing for a British, Canadian, or Australian English-speaking audience, there may be some key differences in style, even though they may use the same general usage guide. For a full list of the varied English style guides, click here.