A Citation Guide for Digital Resources

Through online databases and open access publications it is easier than ever to identify and access research materials online. The amount and types of information available varies, including everything from scholarly journals to social media updates. How should relevant digital resources be cited in a project or paper?

Many of the major style guides (e.g., MLA, APA and Chicago) are catching up with the changes, but adding new guidelines to their published manuals takes time. This guide provides more details about citing digital resources, including tips on citing everything tech-oriented, from an electronic book to a blog post.

Why Cite Digital Resources

What is a digital resource? Described as “Web publications” by the Modern Language Association (MLA), these are items accessed in a format other than print. They may also be available in print, but when they are accessed in a digital format, you need to know how identify them as such in reference lists and bibliographies.

Scholarly journals are often recommended as a good starting point for academic research. Currently, tens of thousands of these journals are available online and can usually be accessed through your library’s database subscriptions. Academic Search Complete is just one example, which currently offers access to more than 13,000 journal titles. Open options are also available, like the Directory of Open Access Journals, which hosts nearly 10,000 additional publications.

When to Cite Digital Resources

The primary purpose of citing a resource used in your work, whether or not it is a direct quote or excerpt, is to give proper credit to the material’s author or creator. Just as you would want to be acknowledged for your efforts, other authors need to be named for their work. Citations also provide documentation about how and where to find each resource, so readers can access and review the materials on their own.

For more information about finding online search options and evaluating web-based resources for use in your courses, check out our Guide to Online Academic Research.

How to Cite Digital Resources

In some cases, citing an online source is similar to citing a print-based source. Books are a good example, especially if a title and edition is available both online and in print. In other cases, however, there are several challenges to citing your web-based sources using traditional methods:

  • Page Numbers: Websites, blogs, and online-only publications rarely use page numbers in their articles. Style manuals provide specific instructions for documenting this. For example, MLA guidelines include using “n. pag.” to indicate that no page numbers are available.
  • Dates: Determining when an online article was written or published can also be difficult since dates appear in different places on different pages and aren’t used at all on some sites. Look for copyright dates, version dates and other indicators. The APA directs the use of “n.d.” in this situation.
  • Authors: Not all online articles provide details about the author. If no name is available, or if you wish to cite an entire website, look for information about the site’s publisher or other entity sponsoring the page. In the Chicago style, the article title would replace the author in a citation if a name is not available.

Web-based resources also include components that their print counterparts do not. Each style guide handles these components differently, but here are two you should be aware of as you build your reference lists:

  • URL: Commonly referred to as a “web address,” Uniform Resource Locators often begin with http:// followed by a string of numbers and letters. Some style guides direct users to include the full URL of a digital resource in the reference list, while others make the assumption that the URL could be found in a simple Internet search given the other information provided in a citation.
  • DOI: Web addresses can and do often change as publications update their sites. Digital Object Identifiers are designed to create a more stable way to access these materials, and include a string of characters that appear like this: doi: 10.1234/123456789 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1234/j.appdev.2014.01.01. Not all web-based publications provide DOIs, but you can look for them on the web page displaying the article you want to cite, or on the first page of the article itself. Refer to your style manual for more information.

Quick Reference Guide

Using a style manual makes your use of citations and references consistent. These guides add structure to the writing process and document formatting, and are often widely adopted for use by specific disciplines. Three of the most common style manuals are featured here (i.e., MLA, APA, Chicago), but others are available and preferred in a range of academic programs. Check with your instructor to make sure you are using the style that is expected in your courses.

The organizations that provide these style manuals often post guidelines for citing digital resources on their sites, but have not yet been incorporated them into the latest edition of their published manuals. Conduct a search for more information if you need to cite an electronic resource that is not included in your style manual. Many examples are provided below, but this is not an exhaustive list and guidelines are continually updated as the need arises.

MLA

The Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers is often used in English, Liberal Arts, and foreign language programs. Beginning with the 7th edition (2009), URLs are not required in citations of web-based resources. Review the following examples of MLA’s guidelines for citing “web publications.”

Online Publications

If the article you want to cite is also available in print, or is part of an online database or subscription, cite it as you would the print version. MLA does not require the URL, but your instructor might want to see it. If this is the case, use the <,> brackets as shown in the second example below.

Publication also appears in print or the publication retrieved from an online database:
Lee, Gwendolyn, K., and Srikanth Paruchuri. “Entry into Emergent and Uncertain Product-Markets: The Role of Associative Rhetoric.” The Academy of Management Journal 51.6 (2008): 1171-1188. JSTOR. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Publication is online-only:
Mbati, Lydia. “Online Social Media Applications for Constructivism and Observational Learning.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14.6 (2013): n. pag. Web. 11 Feb 2014. <http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1579>.

Electronic Books

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Public Domain. 1859. Project Gutenberg. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Web Page

Fogarty, Mignon. (2014, January 16). “The Secret to Writing a Bestselling Novel.” Grammar Girl. 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Feb 2014.

Email

Jones, Debra. “Re: Stress and Engineering Students, 2011 study.” Message to the author. 11 Feb. 2014. E-mail.

Tweet

The College Board (CollegeBoard). “In 2001, about 135,000 students took AP science exams. In 2011, nearly 314,000 did. #ExploreAP courses now! bit.ly/12JLuzc.” 11 Feb. 2014, 11:03 a.m. Tweet.

Blog Post or Comment

Dabbs, Lisa M. “Read with Me: 5 Tips to Foster a Love for Reading.” Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Online Media

Image
spykster. “Books – Then and Now.” Photograph. Flickr. 26 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

APA

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is often used in education and social science programs. The 6th edition (2010) includes specific instructions for the use of DOIs. Review the following examples of APA’s guidelines for citing “electronic sources:”

Online Publications

Lee, G. K., & Paruchuri, S. (2008). Entry into emergent and uncertain product-markets: The role of associative rhetoric. The Academy of Management Journal, 51(6). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40390267

Mbati, L. (2013). Online social media applications for constructivism and observational learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(5). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1579

If a DOI is available, include it. Otherwise use the URL.

Electronic Books

Your citation will vary slightly based on the formats available (e.g., print, web-based, audio) and the amount of information available. Review the following examples:

Dickens, C. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Dickens, C. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/98

Web Page

Fogarty, M. (2014, January 16). The secret to writing a bestselling novel. Retrieved from http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/the-secret-to-writing-a-bestselling-novel

Email

Email messages, as well as other private or limited access information, don’t need to be included in a reference list, but should be cited in text as “personal communication.” Conversations (e.g., interviews) and oral presentations (e.g., lecture) that are not publicly documented and can’t be retrieved also fall into this category. Review the in-text examples below:

Email Conversation
There were four reasons given why the students majoring in engineering reported higher levels of stress (D. Jones, personal communication, February 11, 2014).

Oral Presentation
According to Dr. Debra Jones, the engineering students reported four primary sources of stress (personal communication, February 11, 2014). Tweet

The College Board [CollegeBoard]. (2014, February 11). In 2001, about 135,000 students took AP science exams. In 2011, nearly 314,000 did. #ExploreAP courses now! bit.ly/12JLuzc [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/CollegeBoard/status/433270018647003136

Note that the citation includes a URL. If the update or social page you want to cite requires a password or other special step to access, use the APA guidelines for “personal communications.” The APA Style Blog provides additional examples for citing other social media platforms including Facebook and Google+.

Blog Post or Comment

Blog
Dabbs, L. M. (2014, February 14). Read with me: 5 tips to foster a love for reading [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-tips-foster-love-reading-lisa-dabbs

Blog Comment
Wilson, D. (2014, February 14). Read with me: 5 tips to foster a love for reading [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-tips-foster-love-reading-lisa-dabbs

Online Media

Podcast
Nature Publishing Group. (2014, February, 13). Future comes closer. Nature Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/

Chicago

The Chicago Manual of Style is often used in literature, history, and arts programs. The 16th edition (2010) includes updates focused on technology and digital materials. Review the following examples of Chicago‘s guidelines for citing “web sources:”

Online Publications

Lee, Gwendolyn, K., and Srikanth Paruchuri. “Entry into Emergent and Uncertain Product-Markets: The Role of Associative Rhetoric.” The Academy of Management Journal 51 (2008): 1171-1188. Accessed 11 February 11, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40390267.

Mbati, Lydia. “Online Social Media Applications for Constructivism and Observational Learning.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14 (2013): n. p. Web. 11 Feb 2014. Accessed February 11, 2014. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1579.

If a DOI is available, include it. Otherwise use the URL.

Electronic Books

If a title is available in multiple formats (i.e., print, digital) cite the version you used in your work. The examples below illustrate two electronic formats of a title that is also available in print.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Public Domain Books, 2010. Kindle edition.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Project Gutenberg, 1994. Accessed February 17, 2014. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/98.

Web Page

Fogarty, Mignon. 2014. “The Secret to Writing a Bestselling Novel.” Grammar Girl. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/the-secret-to-writing-a-bestselling-novel.

Email

The preference in this style is to include citation of email messages as an endnote or footnote, not in the bibliography.

Jones, Debra, Jones, email message to author, February 11, 2014.

Tweet

The preference in this style is to include citation of tweets as an endnote or footnote, not in the bibliography.

17. The College Board, Twitter post, February 11, 2014, 11:03 a.m., https://twitter.com/CollegeBoard/.

Blog Post or Comment

These would usually be included as notes, instead of listed in a bibliography.

Blog
1. Lisa M. Dabbs, “Read with Me: 5 Tips to Foster a Love for Reading,” Edutopia – Student Engagement (blog), February 14, 2014, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-tips-foster-love-reading-lisa-dabbs.

Blog Comment
2. Donna Wilson, February 14, 2014 (8:42 a.m.), comment on Lisa M. Dabbs, ” Read with Me: 5 Tips to Foster a Love for Reading,” (blog), February 14, 2014, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-tips-foster-love-reading-lisa-dabbs.

Online Media

Podcast
Smith, Kerri. Fusion Comes Closer. Podcast Audio. Nature Podcast. MP3, 00:42. Accessed 17 February 2014. http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/

When you find helpful information online how can you tell if it’s an online periodical or a blog? Is it available on a site or a particular page? Discerning the differences can be challenging. Citation of digital resources can be nuanced, and there is some room for interpretation in several of the categories and examples featured above.

You won’t always have access to all of the details usually required of a citation (e.g., author, publication date). When you encounter this situation provide as much information as is available to help identify your source and allow others to retrace your steps to access it for themselves.

In addition to the online resources offered by each style manual, the following sites provide helpful information about citing digital materials: