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How to Read a Citation

Know Citation Elements

A citation is a standard format for describing a publication or any other source of information. The main parts of a citation for published materials--whether published on paper or electronically-- are [1] the name(s) of the author(s), editor(s), or creator(s) [2] the title of the publication, and [3] the publication data. Citations to Web sites include the same elements if available, using the URL and the date of access as part of the publication data. Citations to other kinds of sources are based on the same pattern as much as possible while identifying the medium as accurately as possible. The elements that make a citation can be ordered in different ways, but they must be presented so that anyone can distinctly identify them. The bottom line is that a citation should point to the source of information. The one who creates the citation should include all the elements that are necessary to help others find the source. In turn, those who read the citation should understand what the creator is saying.

Various academic disciplines publish style manuals to guide authors and scholars in writing citations.The professor who is requiring you to write a research paper probably requires that you use a certain style manual. Being information literate includes the ability to read and write citations accurately, and the only way to learn is by reading and writing citations often. At first you may have to laboriously follow a style manual, but eventually you will come to think of publications in terms of their citations. At that point, you will have to use a style manual only for citing less common types of sources. If you don’t know which style manual to use, ask your professor. If you don’t have an appropriate style manual, you can use one at the library. Copies of the most frequently used style manuals at the university are kept at the Reference Desk in McWherter Library.

Understand Basic Citation Formats

Two kinds of library materials you will use most often in your research are books and periodicals (magazines, journals and newspapers), so those are the sources you must recognize in citations. Not only do you have to be able to distinguish between a book and a periodical in the research process, but you have to be able to cite them properly yourself when you use them in your research paper. One distinctive clue is that the title of an article in a periodical is enclosed in quotation marks, though you cannot judge by this fact alone since titles of essays and other parts of books are enclosed in quotation marks also. The easiest way to distinguish between a citation to a book and a citation to an article in a periodical is to look at the publication data. A book citation includes the place of publication, the name of the publisher, and the year of publication. A citation to an article in a periodical does not contain the name and location of the publisher; instead it has the name of the periodical, a volume number, sometimes an issue number, and a date that often includes a particular month or season. Examine the two citations which are shown below in the MLA format (the style manual of the Modern Language Association). What differences do you see in the kind of information given?
Book citation:
Goldstein, Arnold P. Delinquent Gangs: a Psychological Perspective. Champaign, Ill.: Research Press, 1991.

Periodical citation:
Lyon, Jean-Marie, Scott Henggele, and James A. Hall. “The Family Relations, Peer Relations, and Criminal Activities of Caucasian and Hispanic-American Gang Members.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 20 (1992): 439-449.

If you see the basic difference between these two citations, you have the basis for identifying variations. Citations to books include the name and location of the publisher. Periodical citations contain the title of the article followed by the name of the periodical, its volume and issue number and/or date, and page numbers.

The periodical citation shown above is for an article in a journal, a scholarly periodical. Magazines and newspapers are also periodicals, though they are usually cited by date rather than by volume number. Otherwise, the format indicates that they are periodicals:

Magazine citation:
Oh, Susan. "Project Turnaround: An Ontario Program Puts Young Offenders through Boot Camp," Maclean's, April 5, 1999, p. 20. 

Newspaper citation:
Vanzi, Max. "State Loses Momentum in Curbing Delinquency." Los Angeles Times, 28 Nov. 1997, pA1. 

When only part of a book is cited, the documentation may look similar to an article in a periodical. If you see a publisher's name and location, though, you know that the "article" is in a book. In the example shown below, you will see that an "article" (essay, chapter) called "Crime and Responsibility," written by Henry Tam, is published in the book Introducing Applied Ethics, edited by Brenda Almond and published by Blackwell, located in Cambridge, in 1995. Tam's "article" is on pages 133-155.

Book chapter:
Tam, Henry. "Crime and Responsibility." Introducing Applied Ethics. Ed. Brenda Almond. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995. pp. 133-155.

Though there are differences in citation formats, you should see a pattern of similarities than enable you to recognize the type of source being cited. With this ability, you will then know what to look for and at least a clue as to where you may be able to find the cited source. Even if you don't know where to find the source, you can communicate your need for assistance more effectively.

Identify Citations in Databases

Citations in electronic databases will have whatever format the index or database imposes. But they will always contain the elements that make up a standard citation: author, title, and publication data. If you recognize the basic differences in the book and periodical citations, you can recognize the differences when those identifying elements appear in database records.
  Social Justice, Winter 1997 v24 n4 p96(21) 

       Representations of gangs and delinquency: wild in the streets? (Losing a Generation: Probing the Myths & Reality of Youth and Violence) Paul A. Perrone; Meda Chesney-Lind.

 The citation shown above is part of a record retrieved from Expanded Academic Index. You know that this is a citation to an article in a periodical because Expanded Academic Index covers only periodicals. But you can also tell that it is a periodical by looking at the citation: the publication data include a volume and an issue number, a date that includes a month/season and year, and a page number, which in this case is just the beginning page number.  (The number 21 refers to the number of pages in the article.) Here is how the citation elements break down:

Authors: Paul A. Perrone and Meda Chesney-Lind
Title of article: Representations of gangs and delinquency: wild in the streets?
Name of periodical: Social Justice
Date of periodical: Winter 1997; Volume 24, Issue number 4
Pagination: The article begins on page 96 and has 21 pages (pp: 96-117) 

Look at these records from another database (MLA International Bibliography) and see if you can identify the citations. What kinds of sources are they? (After you look at each one, click on the "Back" button to get back to this page.)

Record A
Record B
Record C

If you looked carefully at the records, you saw that there is a data field called Pub Type that tells you what kind of publication is being described. Record A cites an article in a journal, Record B cites a chapter in a book, and Record C cites a dissertation, which is a paper written by candidates for a doctoral degree. Not all of the resources you use to find citations will identify the type of source being cited, so you should be prepared to recognize the source type by reading the citation alone.

There are many kinds of information sources, but most of your citations will probably be books and periodicals. You may see many different kinds of sources cited, and you may have to cite them yourself. That is why you need a good style manual. Many sources such as audio-visuals, government publications, television newscasts and Web pages are easy to recognize if they are cited correctly, but, unfortunately, sometimes they are not. If you cannot recognize what the source is from the citation, check your style manual or ask a librarian or someone else who may be able to help identify the source. Before you start looking for the source, you have to know what it is!

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Last Updated: 1/23/12