Citation standards

Appropriate citations are a highly contextual matter. There is no one style of citation that is appropriate for every case. Rather than stipulate a particular citation style for all times and places, I encourage students to learn to determine for themselves what standards they should use in a given context. By the end of one's education, one should be familiar with a variety of citation techniques.

The following are some tips for doing citations appropriately:

  • Identify your genre, your audience, and your medium. Look at other similar documents that share those characteristics and notice which citation formats they are using. When in doubt, err on the side of more formality and the use of standard citation systems rather than trying to invent your own.
  • If you're writing an academic paper or any kind of formal document, notice that different fields tend to use particular style and citation systems, such as APA, MLA, or Chicago. A good way to identify the appropriate one is to go to the websites of major journals in your field and read their submission guidelines.
  • If you're writing a non-academic text, such as a memo, letter, or whitepaper, consider your medium and audience. What kind of citation would be most useful to your ideal reader?
  • Regardless of your citation format, make sure that the reader can ascertain, for a given piece of information, the source from which it came, with enough information that the reader can double-check that source.
  • If you're citing online sources, don't just copy the URL. If your document will be read online, perhaps using hyperlinks to cite sources makes the most sense; if your document may be read on paper, ensure that readers can get a good sense of what and where the source document is without having to type in some long URL.
  • Remember that online documents may not be persistent—they may very well be removed or taken down after you cite them. If your document is designed to be persistent, consider citing with a high-quality archiving service like
  • Above all, be rigorous in your use of citations—ensuring readers can find your sources as easily as possible—and consistent in how you format them.