Step Eight to Writing a Research Paper: Citing Sources — MLA or APA Style?
When you are invited to a party, how do you determine what to wear? Do you base your clothing decision on the location of the party, on those who will be in attendance, or even on the theme or the occasion for the party? Most likely, you decide based on one or more of the factors mentioned, and you choose a style and an outfit that are appropriate. When you write a term paper, you also have to consider style, and the documentation style you choose will be based primarily on the subject of your paper and on your teacher’s expectations.
Believe it or not, when you write a term paper, you have numerous documentation styles available. The two most common, however, are the MLA style and the APA style.
MLA Style. According to The Purdue Online Writing Lab, the style of the Modern Language Association “is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities” (“MLA Formatting and Style Guide”). Thus, if you are taking a writing course, a literature course, a language course, or an art course, your instructor may ask you to use the MLA style. Note, however, that if you’re taking a writing course, but the subject of your paper is not in the arts or humanities, your instructor may ask you to use a different style. Note, too, that some instructors who teach outside the realm of the arts and humanities may also ask you to use the MLA style.
The MLA style has two required components and one optional component. First, you must include parenthetical references for your sources. Basically, that means any time you take information from a source and use it as part of a quotation, a paraphrase, or a summary, you must include the author or authors’ last name(s) and the page number for the source in a set of parentheses after that information is mentioned (Maimon, et al., 381). Since the essay you are reading is about writing, this essay is written in MLA style, and the source for the information in the previous sentence is included at the end of that sentence in a parenthetical reference. (Exceptions to the general rule about author and page do exist, so be sure to consult the MLA guidelines for sources that do not fit the normal pattern.)
Next, you must also include a list of “works cited” at the end of your paper. So, if you mention any source in your paper (either in the text itself or in a parenthetical reference), you must include additional information about that source on your works-cited page. Generally, these sources will be listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, and each citation will include the author’s name, the full title of the source, and publication information about the source. This information will make it possible for your readers to find your sources if your readers wish to consult those same sources. (Again, exceptions to the general rule about author, title, and publication information do exist, so be sure to consult the MLA guidelines for sources that do not fit the normal pattern.) You should know, too, that some instructors will ask you for a “works consulted” list in place of, or in addition to, a works cited list. Obviously, those instructors want to see a complete list of all your sources — sometimes referred to as a bibliography — even if you didn’t refer to all of them in your paper.
Finally, though you are not required to do so, you may also include explanatory notes and acknowledgements at the end of your paper. These notes can be helpful when you want to “offer the reader comment, explanation, or information that the text can’t accommodate” or when you want to make “evaluative comments on your sources” (“Are Notes Compatible with MLA Style?”).
APA Style. The style of the American Psychological Association is typically used in “many of the social and behavioral sciences” (“About APA Style”). That means if you are taking a course in sociology, psychology, business, or medical subjects, you may be required to use the APA style. The APA style is similar to the MLA style because the APA style also requires parenthetical citations within the text and a complete list of sources — referred to as “references” — at the end of the paper.
The major difference between the two styles concerns the placement of dates within the parenthetical references and on the list of sources at the end of the paper. The APA style requires the author’s name and the year of publication in all in-text citations. In addition, the APA style requires that the date immediately follow the author’s name on the list of sources (instead of placing the date at the end of the publication information as is done in the MLA style). The APA style places a greater emphasis on the date of publication because readers in the behavioral and social sciences want the most current information available. In fact, some instructors in those fields will tell you that they don’t want you to use any sources that are more than three years old. Finally, you should know that the APA style “discourages the use of explanatory content notes to supplement the ideas in your paper, but they are an option” (Maimon, et al., 452).
When you first start using either the MLA or APA documentation style, you may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the style and by the numerous rules that pertain only to specific sources. However, like any other activity, you will soon become accustomed to the patterns, and you’ll probably find yourself helping your friends and classmates learn to use the style as well. Now, if you could only figure out what to wear to that party.
“About APA Style.” American Psychological Association, 2017, www.apastyle.org/about-apa-style.aspx
“Are Notes Compatible with MLA Style?” The MLA Style Center, 29 February 2016, style.mla.org/2016/02/29/using-notes-in-mla-style/
Maimon, Elaine P., Janice H. Peritz, and Kathleen Blake Yancey. The New McGraw-Hill Handbook. 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill, 2009.
“MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” The Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University Writing Lab, 2017, owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/