It is a universal truth that citing and referencing your academic sources is the most tedious task of a student. After spending weeks on a paper (or if you’re daring, one night), how absurd is it to actually sit down, backtrack all your data and sort them in a specific order that you should have probably remembered by now, but you don’t. There’s no need for distress, that’s 90% of us, and it’s totally normal. Citations suck, and that’s a scientific fact. 

Regardless of all of grumbling, though, citing and referencing your academic texts are an incredibly important component of academic writing. There’s no way around this one, and there shouldn’t be either. If your university  hasn’t already taught you how to do this on day 1 of college (or if you’re in need of a revision), look no further. Or if you’ve ever been confused about when to use what, read on! 

Ideally, the best way to go about this is to ask your professor or adviser. “When in doubt, go to your guide,” so says the old adage. But, well, life is life, and it often doesn’t pan out the way you want it to. So instead of poring over ache inducing guides in a library, you might want to stick around for this one.


What does citing and referencing a paper mean?

When you are engaging in academic writing, irrespective of the length or intensity of your essay/paper, it is imperative to properly cite your sources. Simply put, this is a way to document all the sources that you have referred to while writing your research. It is an incredibly valuable process without which your findings will be incomplete. Proper citations are a vital part of academic proofreading. Believe it or not, they can make or break your paper. 

There are many reasons for this: other than, of course, the plagiarism charges that will grace your paper with the stamp of a sore F. Plagiarism is not just copying, it actually amounts to stealing someone else’s painstaking work – their intellectual property. Citing your sources is also the most standard way to increase your credibility in the academic world. It places your work in the context of the literature of your field, and is therefore also a mark of good scientific research. It is the most reliable way of providing evidence and strengthening your arguments. 

The whole process itself consists of two main parts:

  1. Citing your source within the body of your text itself, also known as in-text citations, and 
  2. Compiling all your sources in the reference section or bibliography

There are a certain set of details about your references that you generally have to provide: your source’s name, where it is from (also called containers in the MLA format), page numbers (or time stamps, for audiovisual sources), issue or version or edition, and publication details. The information that you have to provide is largely the same in all formats, but what varies is the order in which they are provided.

Word processors usually have inbuilt features to help you document your sources,but it is infinitely better (I’m sorry, but c’est la vie!) for you to do it yourself. Sometimes MS Word isn’t updated to the latest trends in citation styles, or your college might have specific requirements.

As you may already know, there are many types of citation styles, depending on discipline and university – hence the confusion of when to use what. But the following three are the most common and therefore the most likely that your professors will ask you to use. 

  • Chicago Manual of Style 
  • Modern Language Association
  • American Psychology Association 


Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):

One of the most famous styles of citations, the Chicago Manual of Style is a standard style devised by the University of Chicago Press. It is mostly used by published scholars and academics, and has two systems of documenting sources within texts. Other than that minor difference, they are both largely similar. 

Here is a brief introduction to both of them:

  1. Notes and bibliography: This style is primarily used in the fields of literature, history and the arts. Instead of most other systems that usually have the source listed within the text itself – so that you can see the source credentials while you’re reading the paper, rather than having to refer the bibliography section each time you want to verify a source – this method uses footnotes and endnotes on every page. Whenever you directly quote, paraphrase or reference an external source, it should be marked with a number that will appear in raised font which must correspond with a note at the bottom of the page. The sources of each page are usually quite brief, only containing the name of the text, and page numbers. A more extensive version is found in the bibliography.
  2. Author-date: This method of citing texts is more common in the social sciences and sciences. In text means that sources are cited briefly within the text (author, date within parentheses) must correspond to a source in the reference list. The reader must be able to cross check sources, where source’s full details must be given.

As mentioned earlier, the reference or bibliography section is where you list out all your sources in order of their appearance in your paper. According to the Chicago Style, your references must ideally have the following information about your sources: its title, the author or authors’ names (also applicable to editors, compilers and translators) and publication details. The author’s name is listed with the surname first (eg: Hawking, Stephen) and the title of the text is italicized. 

When you’re citing a journal article, for example, your entry will look something like this: 

Rosenhan, David. “On being sane in insane places.” Science, Vol. 179, Issue 4070 (1973) , pp. 250-258

American Psychological Association (APA):

The APA citation style is popular in the social sciences and sciences. It was devised by the American Psychological Association to  standardize scientific writing within academic disciplines. It is also commonly used within empirical disciplines with practical applications such as medicine, business, criminology, law, etc. In this format, the date of publication is given a priority so as to stay updated with ongoing research in the respective fields. 

For its in-text citation, APA uses the author-date system. When you are paraphrasing or simply referencing your source, the in-text citation has the last name of the author and the year of publication in brackets, separated by a comma. If you are directly quoting your source, it also includes page number(s). 

Unlike Chicago, your bibliography is only compiled once at the end of your paper under the reference section in. It contains the author’s name, year, name of the text, name of the larger source (in italics), edition or issue number, and publication details. The whole section is compiled alphabetically in order of the author’s last name. As you will see below, the author’s initials are mentioned instead of their first name. While citing a journal article, your citation will look like this: 

Rosenhan D.L (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, Vol. 179, Issue 4070, pp. 250-258.


Modern Language Association (MLA):

As the name suggests, standard citation guide popular within literature and language studies. The 8th edition of MLA, published in 2016, is the most updated version of this format. Since it is used in literature and humanities, there is much more leniency to source a plethora (of types) of materials within the system –  hence the need for constant updates. 

It also follows the author-date system for its in-text citations – the last name of the author, followed by the page number of the text you are referencing; both  in parentheses. If the name of the author is already there in the body of your text, only page numbers are mentioned in parentheses. 

As for references, it follows the following general format, subject to modifications as per source: Author, Title of source, Container (once again, in italics), version/number, Publisher, Publication Date, Location. 

An entry to cite a journal article will look something like this: 

Rosenhan,David L. On being sane in insane places. Science, Vol. 179, Issue 4070, American Association for the Advancement of Science, (1973), Washington DC, USA. 


a brief guide to citations


How to Cite an Online Source:

It’s the zenith of the internet age. There is no doubt about that. In the midst of the trend of all of human history being stored in digital formats, many sources sought out by academicians are being documented so as well. Online journals databases like JSTOR and Elseiver have comprehensively compiled both current and past editions of academic texts across various fields. As part of the online cataloging process, each text is given a Digital Object Identifier or DOI. If you are accessing your source online or if you have done your research online, your citations must include the DOI of your source (or a link to it, if there isn’t one). So, if you’re citing your paper in APA, for example, your citation will look like this:

Rosenhan D.L (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, Vol. 179, Issue 4070, pp. 250-258. DOI: 10.1126/science.179.4070.250 


Bibliography: A list of all the sources you have referred to in your research of an article or paper. Unlike the reference list, this also includes sources that have not been directly cited in the text.
Cite (v.): The act of referencing a text to use it as an example or a point of argument in your own paper or article.
Citation (n.): A reference to a published work in your paper. Direct quotes and paraphrasings can be cited in a paper, by including the name of the text, its author(s), date of publication, etc.
DOI: Abbreviation of Digital Object Identifier. A unique code of numbers, letters, and symbols that identify the referenced text on the web. A DOI is used to identify sources on the internet.
Endnote: A reference, comment, or note placed at the end of the article. It can be used to elaborate on points
Footnote: A reference, comment, or note placed at the end of each page.
In-text citation: Used when referring to, summarizing, paraphrasing or directly quoting an existing source. The in-text citation is included in parentheses, immediately following the reference. Usually includes the year of publication and the author (and the page number, if it’s a direct quote), and must correspond with an entry in the reference list.
Reference list: A list of texts referenced in the paper. Each reference must have a corresponding in-text citation within the paper.

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has an immensely comprehensive table that you can refer to see how to cite any type of document (books to newspapers to pamphlets to even podcast episodes) in the three systems that you’ve just learnt.