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Who Said That? How to Cite Electronic Resources

citing online sourcesIncreasingly, students are using electronic resources for researching papers, projects, and reports. This week, Education World explores a variety of bibliographic styles for citing those resources. Included: Four mini style guides students can save -- and use!

"Always provide as much information as you can about an electronic source. The goal is to provide as much information as you can accurately supply that will help the reader locate the exact source cited."
            -- Garner and Smith, 1993

A bibliography, as any student or former student knows, is an alphabetized list providing information about resources used or consulted while preparing a paper or project. The purpose of the bibliography is to attribute unoriginal ideas to their proper sources -- and to help the reader locate and utilize those sources.

Through the years, several different formats for citing print resources have been developed. Those formats, often determined by the purpose or subject matter of the paper or project, are similar -- but not identical -- to one another.



Three of the most commonly used bibliographic styles include these:

  • Modern Language Association (MLA) style, primarily used for citing sources in scholarly manuscripts and student research papers.
  • American Psychological Association (APA) style, primarily used for citing sources in scientific papers and projects.
  • Columbia style, which includes both a humanities and a Scientific Style.

Whichever style is used, the same general standards for creating a bibliography apply. These include the following:

  • Center the title "Bibliography" about 1 inch from the top of the first page.
  • Begin each entry at the left margin and indent additional lines.
  • Single-space within entries and double-space between entries.
  • List the authors' last names first.
  • Alphabetize entries by last names of the authors or editors. If an entry has no author or editor, alphabetize by the first word of the title, excluding A, An, or The.
  • Number the pages consecutively with the rest of the paper.



More and more students, many of whom have grown up with computers, are using electronic resources in preparing research papers and projects. Those electronic resources can include e-mail; Web sites; listservs; newsgroups; online chats; online encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, and directories; electronic books, articles, journals, magazines, and other publications; online databases; gopher documents; FTP (file transfer protocol) files; software; and video games.

Whenever students utilize those resources, they must cite and attribute them, just as they would print resources.

So far, no one method of citing those resources has been agreed upon. Even the styles most often used -- proposed by authors of the most common print style guides, by authors of electronic style guides, and by committees of educators -- are still evolving.

Many educators have developed their own rules for citing electronic resources based on one or more of the above sources. If you haven't, you might want to check out one of the guides below. We've included reference formats from the three most widely used guides, as well as one created specifically for students!

Each of those guides contains slight variations in style, but all agree on one point: When in doubt about whether to include an element (a URL, a site name, an e-mail address, a printed source, or the name of an author, an editor, or a site developer), put it in. If a reader can't locate and verify a source, the reference is meaningless.




Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

Updated 09/20/2013