6.4 Citing in APA

Natalie Boldt and Loren Gaudet

Before we jump into the specifics about citing in APA, let’s step back and remind ourselves why we cite in the first place: we are documenting conversations that researchers (including you!) enter into, and in turn respectfully acknowledging the work, ideas, contributions, and knowledges from sources other than ourselves. That’s a large part of what we mean when we talk about research.

In the Four Feathers Writing Guide, Dr. Elder Shirley Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Elder Nadine Charles (TEȺȽIE), and the Manager for Blended Learning Success, Theresa Bell describe research and gathering knowledge, and remind us that there are many sources and sites of expertise.

Gather Knowledge from Experts

The hunt for knowledge, which involves researchers using the most appropriate tool to gather specific types of information, is an essential part of getting ready to write about a topic. Seeking knowledge allows you to consult experts on your topic and learn more about the relationships between their teachings. In Indigenous societies, learning information means going to an expert to learn (Charles, 2018). For example, Elders teach about history, hunters teach about hunting, and fishermen teach about fishing (Charles, 2018). Other sources of Indigenous knowledge include:

  1. learning from observation of cyclical patterns in ecosystems and other natural law;
  2. learning from animals;
  3. spiritual knowledge acquired through ceremonies;
  4. learning through teachings in Indigenous stories and philosophies;
  5. trial and error;
  6. Indigenous empirical-like knowledge;
  7. Oral Traditions;
  8. learning from Elders’ interpretations and intuition;
  9. ancient ancestral knowledge;
  10. learning through Indigenous theories and methodologies;
  11. learning through unique aspects of the contemporary Indigenous condition. (Younging, 2018, p. 115)

Students have a similar opportunity to draw upon the wisdom of experts by consulting works created by scholars; students can also gather knowledge by doing primary research themselves.[1] [2]

While this passage is especially relevant to those who belong to Coast Salish communities, the above also reminds us that knowledges take many forms, and that students (that means you!) gather wisdom when they take on the role of researchers. But remember, it’s crucial to make clear where the knowledge and wisdom that you are gathering is coming from. That’s where citation comes in.

One of the ways that social science writing is different from other disciplines is in its citation style. APA, or the style for the American Psychological Association, is a primary style used for social science writing in university (although individual instructors and courses may require other citation styles. As always, consult your instructor for specifics). We have discussed citational practice in Chapter 4.6 and have linked to a resource that summarizes APA citation style. In this section we’ll take a closer look at some of the generic norms of using APA citations in social science writing.

Before we jump in, you might be wondering why it’s important to know how to cite when there are citation generators that you can find online (for example, Zotero and EndNote). Citation generators can be really useful, but they can also produce incorrect, incomplete, or inaccurate citations. Let us explain. As we note in chapter 4.6.4, citation generators rely on existing input (for example, how the information about a text was entered by a user) and do not exercise judgment on their own.[3] If someone entered the wrong date for a publication, or even forgot to enter a date, then the citation generator will create a citation with that incorrect or missing date. If someone mixed up the title of an article and the authors names when entering information, the citation generator will create a citation that has the author name and the title of an article mixed up. So, even if you’re using a citation generator, it’s important to have a clear understanding of how to create citations in APA so that you can notice when something is out of place in a generated citation and fix it. Let’s go!

Think of citing as a practice or habit: the more you do it, the more confident you’ll be. Don’t worry—you don’t need to have all the elements of citation memorized. A guide is there for you to reference! Even your professors will reference style guides when writing and publishing their research (the authors of this guide depend on style guides!). Citation styles also change over time, so it’s important to check the most up to date version of the style guide.

Let’s talk for a minute about why citation styles change and what APA is really for—for example, why does APA put the date first? Because currency in social science research is often crucial. Why do I need to use an initial for an author’s first name rather than using the full name? Because APA invests in gender equality and values concision. We explain more about why APA is the preferred citation style for the social sciences below. (And of course, it’s always a good idea to check with your instructor if you’re unclear about citation style.)

APA style is not arbitrary—it is a style that lends itself well to papers with multiple authors and multiple citations. Social scientists (and those writing about social science writing) value concision, and this citation style lends itself well to economical or concise writing. For example, APA style instructs writers to abbreviate all names but the authors’ last names and use “&” instead of “and.” These stylistic choices reflect the value social science writing places on getting to the point.

Here’s an example of what we mean. Let’s look at a recent article published in The Annual Review of Psychology, a leading academic journal in the social sciences. The following excerpt is taken from the article, “Memory and Reward-Based Learning: A Value-Directed Remembering Perspective,” by Barbara J. Knowlton and Alan D. Castel:

When possible, people may offload information by writing down notes or taking a photograph of information to be remembered. However, people also have some awareness of how to encode information more effectively into memory (Ariel et al. 2009). Although people may not generally be aware of highly effective encoding strategies (e.g., Kornell & Bjork 2007), they nevertheless use experience to improve their memory performance on specific tasks by applying more effective encoding strategies (Storm et al. 2016). These strategies may include spending more time on information deemed valuable, using mental imagery, or forming associations between new information and previously learned information. Hertzog et al. (2008) applied a metacognitive model of learning about strategy effectiveness in an experiment in which participants learned paired associates (e.g., table—wallet, apple—book) across successive lists.[4]

Can you spot the parenthetical citations in the passage above? There are many and all of the sources cited are written by two or more people. (Remember, an in-text citation that has three or more authors is represented by listing the first author followed by “et al.”) And what’s more, these citations are used to shore up claims that the authors are making—the citations are frequent and often in passing. This form of citation is representative of writing in the social sciences: writing that often synthesizes and incorporates numerous citations in order to support a claim. The author-date system, that is, including the year alongside the author(s) name(s), is important as well, because many of the authors cited in this passage have more than one publication, and being able to determine which specific study the authors want to reference helps to guide the reader.

You’ll also notice that there are two different approaches to citations: parenthetical citations or citations that appear entirely in brackets such as (Ariel et al., 2009); and signal phrase citations or citations that use the author/s name(s) or pronoun(s) as part of the sentence such as “Hertzog et al. (2008) applied …” Both of these approaches are useful, and switching between citation approaches can help to keep your reader on track. (For a set of examples on using these different approaches, see this great resource on citation frequency from Camosun College.)

Even the choices about what to include in parenthetical (or in-text) citations alerts us to some of the disciplinary norms in the social sciences. While quoting can and does happen in APA, social science disciplines tend to quote less frequently than, say, disciplines that use MLA. Disciplines that use MLA often include textual evidence for analysis, and as a citation style, MLA works well for multiple citations of the same text. Think about any literature course that you might have taken—likely the assignments will have asked you to analyze a literary text like a novel or a poem, and quote from the text to support your points. It’s also likely that you will have used MLA to cite sources. APA is quite different from MLA (we are sure you have noticed!).

When citing in text, APA requires that you list last names, years, and page numbers (if, and when, including direct quotes). In this style, the year of the publication is prominent—this is because it’s crucial to engage with recent scholarship when providing evidence for claims. APA is also helpful for managing multiple citations by the same author or authors and making it easier for your reader to follow along with your citations. It’s not uncommon for scholars in the social sciences to have many publications, so including the year of publication in an in-text citation makes it clear which work is being referenced. This helps the reader to keep track of the conversation, and it helps the writer stay organized too.[5]

Citing your work might seem to be an overwhelming or daunting task, but the most important thing is to make clear to your reader from whom and from where you’re gathering knowledge. It’s important to remember that different kinds of knowledges may require different kinds of acknowledgements and different processes for citation. For example, the information you need to include when citing a journal article requires more publication information than if you cite an email from a professor. Understanding how to cite properly is especially crucial when researching Indigenous topics, which often include writing about Traditional Knowledges. Let’s return to the Four Feathers Writing Guide, where Elder Shirley Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Elder Nadine Charles (TEȺȽIE), and Theresa Bell outline some of the guidelines for researching Indigenous topics.

If you’re researching Indigenous topics, you may use a combination of approaches to learn more about Indigenous Traditional Knowledge. The transmission of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is both oral and relationship-based. If you are researching Indigenous topics, please be respectful in approaching communities to request access to Knowledge Holders. Prior to conducting research or gathering information, it is essential to gain the blessing of the community, usually through its Elders, and to respect and follow their rules surrounding relationships and knowledge transfer. Be aware of nation, community, and family laws and how each community approaches them before visiting a community (Charles, 2018).  Please also make sure to follow the necessary ethical guidelines to ensure your interactions with Indigenous Peoples and their communities are respectful and focus on collaboration and engagement (see Section B in “Gather Information: Resources” in this guide for examples).

Finally, remember that some teachings are sacred and not all traditional teachings should be shared outside the community. If you have been welcomed into a First Nations’ community, ask for permission from the appropriate individual to share knowledge versus assuming all knowledge is open to everyone. If you receive permission to include teachings in your work, please see How Should I Cite Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers? for a recommended approach to citing Traditional Knowledge.[6]

This passage from the Four Feathers Writing Guide emphasizes that there are different citation practices, but it also reminds us to think about questions of responsibility and ethics when researching. We take up these questions in the next section (and we discuss them in detail in Chapter 4). At this point though, we hope you have an understanding of how to use APA to give your reader all the tools they need to differentiate between the different voices that you incorporate into your work, including your own!

  1. Knowledge from the Four Feathers Writing Guide is shared with permission from the co-authors: Dr. Elder Shirley Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), who is from Hul’q’umi’num People of Cowichan Nation and is a spiritual leader of the T’Sou-ke Nation; the late Scia’new Nation Elder Nadine Charles (TEȺȽIE); and Theresa Bell, Manager, Blended Learning Success, at Royal Roads University. While the guide is designed specifically to support Coast Salish students, the co-authors, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers who contributed to the guide hoped the Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous philosophies of learning and teaching would provide opportunities for learning about academic writing to Indigenous students from other communities as well as non-Indigenous students. You may not share this information or download it without permission from the authors. Thank you for being respectful readers.
  2. Shirley R. Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Theresa Bell, and Nadine Charles (TȺȽIE), Four Feathers Writing Guide, (Royal Roads University, 2022), https://libguides.royalroads.ca/fourfeathers/gather.
  3. For more information on citation generators, see this useful summary from the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.
  4. Barbara J. Knowlton and Alan D. Castel, “Memory and Reward-Based Learning: A Value-Directed Remembering Perspective,” The Annual Review of Psychology 73, no. 1 (2022): 29, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-032921-0
  5. In this chapter (and in the textbook more broadly), we’ve opted to follow the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)—specifically their notes and bibliography system. The CMOS is a style used most commonly in history because, as our colleagues at Purdue observe, “History places great emphasis on source origins.” Footnotes and endnotes make it easy for readers to see, at a glance, when a particular source appeared and which edition the author is using. For our purposes, the footnote system allows us to give you quick and easy access to important source information without having to click to the end of the chapter or, even, the end of the book. For more information about the whys and hows of citation, we highly recommend this handy chart detailing the general approaches of each major style guide from the folks at Purdue’s OWL.
  6. Shirley R. Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Theresa Bell, and Nadine Charles (TȺȽIE), Four Feathers Writing Guide, (Royal Roads University, 2022), https://libguides.royalroads.ca/fourfeathers/gather. Please remember that you may not download or adapt any material from the Four Feathers Writing Guide without express permission from the authors.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Natalie Boldt and Loren Gaudet is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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