Citation guidelines (Fall 2010)

This posting explains the citation format that you should use in papers written for COMM 2302 (Media Interpretation and Criticism),[1] COMM 3325 (Transmedia Storytelling), and COMM 3344 (Games for the Web). A more nicely formatted version of these guidelines is available via TLEARN.

For years, I’ve asked students to follow the American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines when citing sources.[2] The APA guidelines describe the proper procedure for parenthetical in-text citations, and they also explain how authors should properly cite sources in the “References” section. Communication professors typically require APA style because it is required by the field’s leading journals.

Unfortunately, the APA rules make little sense in the context of many undergraduate writing assignments. Students must wade through different versions of the guidelines, and certain aspects of the APA style (e.g. title pages and running heads) become a formatting nightmare. Instead of focusing mental energy on the credibility of their sources and the substance of their arguments, students waste time fretting over the use of page headers in Microsoft Word.

Why are certain professors obsessed with citation issues?

Contrary to popular belief, professors do not require source citations because we derive a sadistic thrill from watching students suffer.

Many political thinkers have observed that freedom of expression is essential to a vibrant democracy.[3] [4] However, in far too many countries, people who voice controversial ideas are fined, imprisoned, and sometimes killed. According to a recent report released by the advocacy group Freedom House, “press freedom is now in decline in almost every part of the world. Only 17 percent of the world’s citizens live in countries that enjoy a free press.”[5]

In some places, people would be severely punished for expressing the behaviors that your professors encourage in your writing assignments. At Trinity University, we ask you to think critically, to make challenging arguments about contemporary issues, and to stand up for the things you believe. We encourage you to pose difficult questions and we show you how to use “dangerous” research tools that are illegal in repressive regimes. These assignments sometimes feel like homework, but they are a precious opportunity.

Believe it or not, your professors are genuinely interested in what you think. We also care about how you express your ideas and support your claims. We want to see you succeed. The ability to make logical, well-supported arguments is essential to your success.

In the past, professors have jumped down my throat about some of my sources. How can I avoid that?

It’s easy. For each source, ask yourself a simple question: “Is this a credible source in the context of the claim that I’m making in my paper?”

OK. But how do I know if a source is credible?

Context is essential to determining source credibility. Imagine that you want to make a claim about the box office success of the movie Dark Knight. Should you cite a blog posting from fangrrl328 in which the author praises Heath Ledger’s multilayered and gut-wrenching performance and declares that the movie is “the most successful cinematic work ever made?”

Probably not. You should not cite fangrrl328 in this way because she is not a credible source in the context of your claim. A better source might be the Hollywood trade publication Variety or the web site Box Office Mojo.

However, if you’re discussing the attitudes of Dark Knight fans and you want to mention that one fan described Ledger’s performance as “multi-layered and gut-wrenching,” fangrrl328 would be fully credible in the context of your claim.

Well, duh. Didn’t we learn this in high school?

Sure you did. But, when overwhelmed with papers and tests, students often take short-cuts. You would be amazed by how often students cite deeply flawed sources without any critical reflection.

You should assume that the person reading your paper will look up all of your sources to see if they support your claims. This means that your sources should be credible in the context of your claims, and it also means that you need to give readers all of the information they need to track down your sources.

I’m still confused. What format should I use? What do you want from me?

When you cite sources in your paper, you should use the “Insert Footnote” feature of Microsoft Word and reference your sources at the bottom of the page. This handout is an example of what I’m looking for.

OK. But what format do I use for the source details at the bottom of the page?

You can use any reference citation style that provides the essential details (e.g. author, title, context of publication, and date) that a reader would need to locate the source and evaluate your claims. This might be APA, MLA, Chicago Style, Turabian, or Martian. As long as you consistently use the same style for all of your references, I honestly do not care what style you use.

Do I need a works cited page at the end of my document?

Absolutely not. Your cited works appear in the references at the bottom of the page, so this would be redundant.

What about citing Internet sources?

All of the major citation frameworks have guidelines for how to cite Internet resources. Sometimes these guidelines make sense. Sometimes they are cumbersome and useless. At a minimum, your citation should include: author, title, publication context, date accessed, and a web address for the publication.

What if there is no author?

This is a huge red flag, as it often signals an unreliable or biased source. When there is no clearly identified author, you need to figure out what institution or group is responsible for posting this information on-line. In many cases, you will decide to reject such sources because they seem unreliable. In other instances, such as the quote from the Freedom House on the first page of this handout, you can still use the source as long as you explicitly identify the institution’s potential biases.

What if there is no page number?

If you find this confusing and frustrating, you’re not alone. Many of us feel this way. Page numbers are a vital characteristic of print, but they are essentially meaningless on the web.

This is a very common occurrence. Many – if not all – of your contextually credible sources will lack page numbers. There is a logical explanation for this: the documents live on-line and have never been published in print.

Remember that we cite page numbers so readers can find the relevant page of a referenced book or article. If your document lacks page numbers, be sure that you cite other information that can help the reader jump to the proper place in the article. The web address is usually sufficient.

Whenever I paste web addresses into my document they wrap oddly and distort the formatting.

Yes. It happens to all of us.  Your readers will understand.

If you’re super obsessive about layout issues, you can reduce the font size on the document to make it fit.

Can all of my references be from on-line sources?

Unless an assignment specifically requires you to place your hands on physical media, this should be acceptable. However, not all on-line sources are the same. You can find some useful information through a raw Google search, and you can find even more useful information by investigating Google Scholar. However, you should supplement these searches with Trinity University’s vast array of library databases. Some of the best, most juicy information is locked away behind payment gateways and you can only reach that data if you go through the campus libraries. Often, these databases will lead you to on-line versions of books and journals that also exist in physical form.

Honestly? All of my references can be from on-line sources?

Yes. However, in many instances, you are doing yourself a huge disservice by limiting your research focus to on-line publications. So much of our collective history exists only in print resources, and those books may never be digitized. If you have even the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity – if you want to know where we came from and where we’re heading – you should push yourself into the stacks and get your hands on physical books and magazines.

Really? You’re not joking? All of my references can be from on-line sources?

It depends on the nature of the assignment, but for the most part the answer is “yes.”

If you ever had to read Nineteen Eighty-Four in high school or college, you might remember something called the “memory hole.” The book’s protagonist works for the Ministry of Information, and his job is to keep people ignorant of their history by shoving dangerous bits of paper down a pneumatic tube to be incinerated.[6] As Orwell notes in the novel, “those who control the past control the future.”[7]

In our society, physical books and magazines are gradually falling down the memory hole. Library budgets are being slashed, and fewer people have access to print materials. These books and magazines contain the collective history of our species. They are a treasure trove of ideas and stories that have been repressed or forgotten.

So, it’s up to you. Do you want to know what’s been shoved down the memory hole?

Can I cite Wikipedia?

You are allowed to use properly cited images from Wikipedia in your papers, but you should not use Wikipedia to support any of your claims.

But isn’t Wikipedia just as reliable as Encyclopedia Britannica?

In some cases, Wikipedia is actually more useful than more established encyclopedias. If you’re researching issues such as fan subcultures, the data cloud, or the use of encryption technology by human rights activists in repressive regimes, you can find some intriguing information on Wikipedia.

However, the site’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Because it is collaboratively edited, Wikipedia is constantly in flux. People have falsified Wikipedia entries as pranks, they have distorted entries to promote their own political agendas, and they have modified entries to erase potentially embarrassing information about public figures.

But you occasionally include articles from Wikipedia in your course packets. Isn’t this hypocritical?

The Wikipedia articles in the course packet are a useful starting point for contextualizing certain niche topics, but they are not intended to support any factual claims.

So I can’t use Wikipedia?

Of course you can. You just can’t cite it, and you shouldn’t rely on it as the basis of your research.

You can use the site as a starting point, but it should only be one entry point into your research.

OK. I understand the Wikipedia thing. But what about other problems that might come up?

Research is messy, and the most interesting sources sometimes don’t fit the traditional citation guidelines. Do your best, and ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is this source credible in the context of my claims?
  • Am I using a consistent citation style throughout my footnotes?
  • Am I providing enough information for the reader to locate and critically evaluate this source?

In the assignment descriptions, you often mention that we should acknowledge the qualifications and potential biases of our sources. Isn’t this somewhat unwieldy? How do you expect us to do this?

Great question. At times, it’s possible to simply identify the author’s qualifications within the body of your text. For example, you might write:

The social psychologist Eliot Aronson (1995) notes that many of the persuasive tactics used by cult leaders are also used – in less extreme ways – by advertisers and political activists.

In the above example, it is relatively easy to slip the author’s qualifications into the body of your paper without disrupting the flow of your prose. However, you can also include some of this analysis in the footnotes at the bottom of your page. As an example of this, read the following sentence from the body of a hypothetical paper and then consult the footnote at the bottom of the page:

Released two months after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, the film Black Hawk Down received mostly positive reviews from film critics. However, the praise was not unanimous. The film critic Rosa Luxembourg dismissed the movie as “yet another example of the running-dog imperialist propaganda regularly cranked out by the corporate tycoons in Hollywood [8].”

The footnotes of your paper can be a useful place to flesh out your overall arguments without detracting from the smooth momentum of your prose.

I know I asked this before, but do we need a works cited page at the end of the paper?

This question comes up frequently. To reiterate, the answer is no. You should not include a works cited page at the end of the paper.

Many citation styles – such as APA and MLA – have special rules about title pages, running headers, and page number placement. What do you want us to do about this?

Don’t worry about any of the special formatting rules for title pages, running headers, and page numbers. Your paper should include page numbers somewhere, but the location is completely up to you. The citation styles only apply to the formatting of your reference information in the body of the footnotes at the bottom of the page. As explained in class, you can usually cut and paste the neatly formatted references from the Worldcat database.

Do our footnotes have to appear on the bottom of the page?

Yes. Your footnotes must appear at the bottom of the page. This makes it easier for the reader to quickly skip between the notes and the body of your paper. Please do not put them at the end of the paper, as this would make them “endnotes” not “footnotes.”

[1] Please note that this document only applies to sections of 2302 taught by Dr. Delwiche.

[2] These rules are outlined in:  American Psychological Association. (2005). Concise rules of APA style. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[3] For a complex but life-changing explanation of why speech matters, see the second and third chapters in: Arendt, H. (1963). On revolution. New York: Viking Press.

[4] For a more direct but equally impassioned treatise on the importance of free expression, consult: Mill, J. S., & Alexander, E. (1999). On liberty. Broadview literary texts. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.

[5] This dismal finding is reported on the Freedom House site in the section devoted to free speech issues. See:

[6] Orwell, G. (2000). Nineteen eighty-four. London: Penguin. See pp. 40-43 for a description of the memory hole.

[7] Orwell, p. 260.

[8] Luxembourg’s negative review is not entirely unexpected, as it appeared in the pages of the militant revolutionary newspaper Maoist International. The newspaper’s tagline is “overthrowing capitalism since 1848.” Despite her obvious political biases, Luxembourg makes some important arguments about the director’s use of montage and rousing military music. See: Rosa Luxembourg, 2002, “Hold the popcorn: Black Hawk Down is obnoxious propaganda,” Maoist International, January 2002, pp. 93-94.


About Aaron Delwiche

This blog is intended to support the activities of students enrolled in Transmedia Storytelling and Games for the Web at Trinity University.
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