Documenting Sources Made Easy

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Many who are not familiar with the basics of APA Style documentation become confused, frustrated, and sometimes even stressed when they need to document a source that may not be typical or contains missing information, but the reality is that with a few deep breaths and a pragmatic approach, most can resolve any documentation challenge they face. 

In fact, proper documentation is just a matter of establishing the who, when, what, and where of the sources as applicable. APA Style documents sources in the body of the paper with in-text citations and at the end on a list of references. In-text citations need to provide the who, when, and where for each work; reference entries will include the who, when, what, and where for each work. 

The who is the author. Who is responsible for the work? The author might be a single person, several people, or maybe even twenty or more individuals. The author could also be an organization or government agency. 

The when is the date of publication. When was the work published? 

The what is the title. What is the work called? 

And, last, the where is the source. For a reference entry, where refers to where the work can be retrieved–a newspaper, a journal, a publisher, or a URL, for example. Within the body of a paper, where refers specifically to where a direct quote can be found. It might be a page number, a paragraph number, a time stamp, or perhaps something else. 

Let’s say you have a journal titled Studies in Popular Culture, and in that journal there is an article written by Joseph Bean titled “The New Coffee Culture” published in 2020. Let’s also say that you found a fabulous quote on page 44 that you have to use in the paper you are writing. Let’s also say that you accessed the journal via an academic database that included the digital object identifier (DOI)

For an in-text citation, you need the who, when, and where. That is, you need the author, date of publication, and location of the direct quote. So an in-text parenthetical citation for this work would include the who, when, and where in parenthesis like this: (Bean, 2020, p. 44). 

What if you don’t use a direct quote? What if you paraphrase? Leave the where out of the citation so that all you have in parenthesis is the who and when–(Bean, 2020). What if there is no date of publication? Just leaving that information out of the citation might give the impression that you forgot to include it, so what you want to do is account for it by using n.d. in the place where the date would have been–like this: (Bean, n.d.).

The reference entry would be constructed by including the who, when, what, and where. The author element would include the last name followed by the first name initial. The date would be placed in parenthesis. The title of the work would be in sentence case. If the work is a stand-alone work like a web page or book, the title should be in italics, but if the work is not stand-alone like an article in a journal, for example, then use sentence case but no other formatting. The last element in the reference entry is where the work can be retrieved. Sometimes where a work can be retrieved has multiple parts such as is the case with the Joseph Bean example.

With this in mind, a reference entry for the work by Bean would be

Bean, J. (2020). The new coffee culture. Studies in Popular Culture.

By considering the who, when, what, and where as applicable, you should be able to gather the necessary information to document any source. In fact, the Publication Manual says that by keeping the four elements in mind–the author, date, title, and source–someone should be able to construct a reference entry for a work even if no model can be found. Without a doubt, given the many variables to a work, sometimes creating a reference entry gets confusing, but with a little practice–as well as with a practical, no-nonsense, you-can-do-it-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it sort of approach such as identifying the who, what, when, and where of a work–you can be successful. And of course, you can always consult a resource for additional information, especially for the more picayune aspects of an entry. 

Are you up to a challenge? You are? Great! Let’s say you have a direct quote from a discussion board post made in an online classroom on May 31, 2020. The material you are quoting comes from the second paragraph of the post. The title of the post is Unit 3 Discussion and was authored by Denise Menace. The URL to the content is and was accessed on December 1, 2020. 

Let’s start with the “easy” part, a parenthetical in-text citation. How would that look? What’s needed? Ah, yes, the who, when, and where–the author, date, and in this case, the paragraph number where the direct quote appeared. 

(Menace, 2020, para. 2).

And what about the reference entry? Again, think about the elements that are needed–who, when, what, and where. The author is Denise Menace. The date of publication is May 31, 2020. The title is Unit 3 Discussion, which we’ll treat as a stand-alone source. And the where will include the URL and retrieval information since the content of an online discussion board post might change over time. Here’s how the reference entry would look:

Menace, D. (2020, May 31). Unit 3 discussion. Retrieved December 1, 2020, from the URL.

You might be thinking, great, I get it, but I likely would not have included the retrieval information. Ok, so be it! You’re right. Unless you consulted a resource, you very well may have left off the retrieval information. However, you still would have included enough of the key elements of the work so that someone could locate it if they wanted to, right? The purpose of a reference entry isn’t to create frustration or cause uncertainty. The purpose of a reference entry is to include specific pieces of information about a work so that someone else could find it. With or without the retrieval information, someone would be able to locate the work. 

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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