Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

FAQs about Citing Sources


Q: Suppose I can’t determine the author of a source, should I just cite "Anonymous"?
A: This is an outmoded practice. If no author is listed but an affiliated organization is given, consider the name of that organization to be the source, both in-text and on the references page.

Q: What if I can’t find either author or year? May I cite the source in-text just by its title?
A: Typically, yes. Supply the title (or a shortened form of it) in-text in quotation marks, then give fuller bibliographic information on the references page.

Q: When citing web sources, should I give the URL within the text itself?
A: No—this is non-standard and, frankly, comes off as pretty lame. Provide the URL on the references page, but handle the in-text citation as you would any other, providing author-year or source number. Unless the nature of the source as being web-based is highly relevant to context, the reader in the act of reading should be virtually unaware (no pun intended) that you are using a web source. Never attempt an in-text citation with something as informal and downright silly as "According to the internet . . ."

Q: Suppose a web page has nothing but a title on it, and I have no idea who authored it?
A: Then you would provide only that information available, in particular the URL and the date accessed, on your references page. As always, be sure to carefully assess the page’s quality and credibility too.

Q: What about information obtained verbally from a credible source?
A: In-text, handle the citation as you normally would, giving author-year or source number; on the references page, follow the person’s name with his or her title or affiliation (you could even supply the party’s mailing address), then the words "personal communication."

Q: What if I’m citing e-mail, or a newsgroup, or a gopher site, or a CD-ROM? How do I handle this on the references page?
A: For such specialized concerns, you need to consult a more specific style guide. Online, I can recommend online! a reference guide to using internet sources.

Q: I’m trying to return to a page I visited last week, and I get error messages. How do I find it?
A: After rechecking your typing, try truncating a portion of the URL. Cutting off the end of the address frequently takes you back to the page’s author and you can try relocating from there. Of course, the page might indeed be gone, entirely eliminated from cyberspace.

Q: How important is a small detail such as punctuation on my references page?
A: Consistency within your document is what matters. Professors rarely deduct points over such small issues, but they do expect you to pay close attention to them and be consistent in your practices.

Q: Suppose I’m citing an author who cited someone else? Do I cite the original author or just the one I read?
A: You should only formally cite the author that you actually read, although a narrative mention of the other source within an in-text sentence is often appropriate. For example: "Kunkle (2001) reports that a 1998 study by Edmund Eberly revealed . . ." Of course, if time permits and the circumstances suggest you should, you might try to track down the original source and interpret it for yourself.

Q: Are footnotes "in" or "out"?
A: They’re definitely "out." Try to avoid them. Journals rarely use them, preferring an endnotes page with explanatory notes at the end of the text. Even this practice is rare except in scholarly works, where the author chooses to offer explanatory side discussions.

Q: What’s the difference between a references page and a bibliography?
A: A references page contains only those references that were directly cited in the text. A bibliography page is more of a reading list—it contains references referred to in the text plus the chief publications that you consulted in a general way. Some people—even some professors—use the two terms loosely and interchangeably, but journals tend to follow the distinction I just provided.

Q: What if I can’t find a source in the library, but the computer tells me it’s on the shelves?
A: Ask a librarian (this answer applies to questions I haven’t listed here as well). My experience is that most librarians are terribly helpful and kind to serious, respectful students.

Q: I’m old-fashioned and I still believe in books, so can you recommend some print resources to answer specific questions about citing web sources?
A: Good for you. I highly recommend Electronic Style: A Guide to Citing Electronic Information, by Xia Li and Nancy B. Crane. Also, the most modern library editions of major style guides (The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing; The Chicago Manual of Style) have thorough information and discussion on citing web sources.