Saturday, 17 October 2015

How to use APA references: Just the basics

We edit psychology papers

In every new school year, another crop of scholars is faced with the perennial issue of using citations in their writing. Many people engage me to edit psychology papers. Of course, psychology is the main discipline to use APA, but many professors assign APA style as the reference style for papers in a wide variety of disciplines. Here are a few tips to make it easier. I'm keeping it short and sweet with just the basics here, so if you have more questions, check out some of my other posts under APA Style, or visit the OWL, which is a great source for writing advice in APA, MLA or Chicago style.

Use parentheses correctly

The first thing you need to know is how to use parentheses. When you put something in parentheses it adds to the sentence, but the sentence must be able to stand alone without it. When you use APA, you are told to enclose the author's name and year of publication in parentheses (Francis, 2015). Notice that the sentence above reads perfectly well without the part in parentheses. However, there are two ways to make a citation. Sometimes you introduce the author's name with a signal phrase at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, you only put the year in parentheses.

According to Francis (2015), blah blah blah.

What I see with some new writers is that they have got stuck on the idea that the author's name is always in parentheses, so they write: "(According to Francis, 2015), blah blah blah." That's quite wrong, since the words "According to Francis," are supposed to be part of the body of the essay, not extra. Notice also that the comma comes after the closing parenthesis mark because the parenthetical date belongs with the name.

Find the right source

The next place people commonly make errors is in citing material they found on the web. Now the first thing you need to know if you are writing a college or university essay is that you DON'T TRUST THE WEB. Use your college or university library and cite peer-reviewed journal articles that you access through the college library. You will probably need a log-in to use the college library, but they have access to journals that are written by experts in the field, and reviewed before publication by other experts in the field. That's why they are more trustworthy. So if you are writing about the history of gun control in the US then the Journal of Social Science is much more trustworthy than the San Jose Times. Choosing the right source will show your teacher that you are seriously researching and will be reflected in your mark. In high school, teachers are trying to get you to learn to simply use citations. In college, they are trying to teach you how to do research. If you are not digging deep, then you are not doing the job and your marks will reflect this lack of effort, even if your writing is good.

Cite the author's name

Once you have found a fact that you want to cite, the first thing you need to know is the author's name. Any journal article should provide this easily. If you have difficulty finding the author's name, then possibly it's not a reliable source. If the San Jose Times doesn't give a byline to the author, then it's about as trustworthy as a rumor you heard on the bus, but if you are citing a general publication like this and there is no author, then and only then, do you use the title of the article, enclosed in quotation marks ("Gun control bad", 2015). Often you find organizations that publish web pages with the information you need, and you can cite the organization as author (American Association of Gun Dealers, 2015). Neither of these is as reliable as a peer-reviewed journal article (Smith, 2015). Notice that in all these cases, you provide the minimum information to identify the article. Every citation must match a full entry in a reference list where you provide the name of the author, date of publication, name of publisher, and URL if you downloaded it from the web. Here are some tips for writing a reference list in APA.