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Citing online sources

The rules for citation styles were developed for print sources long before online documents were available. So not too surprisingly, it can be difficult to locate identifying information equivalent to that available in print publications in an online source and fit it into a traditional citation format. Sometimes you have to do some investigation, or even be a little creative, to get the necessary information. Understanding the basic purposes of citation can help you determine what information you really need. The three basic purposes of citation are to:

  1. identify your source,
  2. enable others to locate the source, and
  3. provide brief criteria to evaluate the source’s relevance and quality.

Web sources
Electronic forms of publications, especially Web pages, turn many of the traditional citation elements on their ear. This is mainly due to a sea change in how the information is created. In traditional print publications, determination of which writing is accepted and how it will appear is highly controlled, resulting in high quality, easy-to-document sources. In the Web environment, anyone can publish in any style they wish. There are no editors to make sure the author puts their name and date on the page, provides meaningful content, or even makes sure their facts are straight. As a result, the burden is put on the reader, including you the researcher, to locate the information identifying the source and to judge if the Web page’s content is accurate and of an appropriate quality.

The following list takes a look at traditional citation elements in the Web environment:

  • Author: Often lacking altogether, other times a name is present on the page without explaining the status is this the creator of the information or just the webmaster maintaining the computer? Frequently the author’s name appears somewhere on the Web site but not the page you are looking at. The following examples illustrate two strategies for hunting down the author’s name:

Example: looking for author in ‘about’
Example: finding the author using the URL

  • Corporate author: An organizational entity rather than an individual is responsible for creating the content. The line between corporate author and sponsoring organization is somewhat slippery in the Web environment but basically an organization acting as a corporate author has a planned, deliberate relationship with the Web site and is responsible for its content. For example:

Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), 24 August 2011. Web. 29 August 2011.

  • Title, subtitle: This most basic of citation elements is often very difficult to pick out on a Web page is it the words in the biggest type on the page, words in the banner, the filename in the top bar of the browser, ...? When trying to decide between competing elements for title on a Web page, choose the one that is most descriptive of the page’s content. Some Web pages have no title at all. Because the title is so important in conveying a sense of the relevance of the source to your reader, it is imperative that you supply one. You should check with your professor, but it is often considered OK to construct an appropriate title yourself rather than not have any title in the citation or one irrelevant to the page’s content. You might also include an annotation, providing a brief description of the content, after the citation if the Web page’s title is missing or irrelevant.

    Example: identifying the title

  • Edition: Changes to publications in the print world are unusual so it is important to indicate new versions. Edition information appears most frequently in reference works such as Merriam-Webster`s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. The very nature of the Web is such that information is constantly being updated making the idea of editions’ seem arcane. However, it is more important than ever for your reader to know which version of the source you used. Otherwise, how do you explain to your professor why the information you quoted last month isn’t on the Web site when she checks your paper today? Including the date when you viewed the site acts as a kind of  edition’ indicator. It is so important, that most style guides specify that you include some sort of date visited information in your citation.
  • Parent publication: Typical print publications which have parents are magazines and journals, where you include both the article title and title of the magazine/journal, and edited books, where you include the chapter title and the title of the book. The relationship of a Web page to its overall Web site can fall into this parent/child category of publication. While you always want to use the URL of the actual page you are citing, sometimes it can provide a helpful context to include information about the parent or overall Web site in the citation for an individual page. 

    Sometimes it is difficult tell if a Web page is part of a larger site if you didn't navigate to it through the sites homepage. Usually it is clear from the navigation structure that the page is part of a larger site. You can also use the URL deconstruction technique described in the author example above to see if the next directory up contains the parent web site. In the citation, the home page or overall site name is italicized or underlined as the parent work and the title of the page itself is surrounded by quotes as you would an article title. Whether or not you choose to include the parent site information can also affect how you write your title for the page:

    Stolley, Karl and Allen Brizee. MLA Works Cited: Electronic Sources. Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), 24 August 2011. Web. 29 August 2011.

    Stolley, Karl and Allen Brizee. Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), 24 August 2011. Web. 29 August 2011.

  • Publication information: Traditionally, these attributes include the name and location of the publisher and the date of publication. Information about the publisher is important for locating print sources but is usually not relevant to many Web sites. However, when there is a clear intentional publisher relationship to a site, that information should be included in the citation. In the title example above, the citation probably should include Columbia University Press as the publisher for the cited page. Note that the organization sponsoring the Web site is not necessarily the same as the publisher. Less clear is whether you need to include the publishers location in a Web citation.
  • Date: Every bit as important in the Web environment as it is in the print world but all too often this critical information is missing. Some web sites include a last updated or last modified date. More and more sites are providing a copyright date. Date information is usually provided in the footer at the bottom of the page. You might also look at a Web sites homepage and their About page for date information.

    If more than one date is given, such as both copyright and last updated dates, you should use the one most specific to the actual page you are citing. For instance, the copyright may be for the year 2002, but the site may have been updated several times during the year. On the other hand, the whole site may have a copyright date of 2002 but the page you are using was last modified in 2001. A recent date for a Web site does not necessarily indicate that information on a particular Web page has been updated.
  • Date visited: Most online citation styles now ask that you include the date that you viewed the page. Often this will serve as the only date information in the citation. The date visited also tells the reader which version or edition’ of the page you based your research on.
  • Sponsoring organization: not part of citations in the print world unless the organization is the corporate author or the publisher. However, for Web sources, the organization sponsoring or associated with the Web site may be the only author’ information available. In addition, even if the author is known, the sponsoring organization can provide important context by which the quality of the information may be judged. Some style guides, like MLA, recommend including sponsoring organization information whenever possible.
  • Page numbers: Pages, as such, do not exist in HTML, the document form most Web pages use. (Web pages that are in PDF format can be broken into individual pages and may have page numbers.) Page numbers are normally required when citing direct quotations. If the Web page has some kind of logical divisions, such as subheadings, you can use these in place of page numbers. Some citation styles recommend counting the number of paragraphs from the last division or from the top of the page and including that information in the citation. Still other styles say page numbers are not needed or are optional for Web pages.
  • DOI: The Digital Object Identifier
  • URL: The universal resource locator, or Web page address, is a critical component of Web page citations since it is required to find the exact same page again. For this reason, it is important that you make sure the URL works. If you have a very long URL, don't use hyphens as a break between lines people will assume they are part of the address. Instead, break the URL after a slash (the start of a new directory). Finally, the URL for the specific page is generally preferred, rather than the addess for the larger Web site, in order to connect readers directly to the information cited.

In general, the more information you can include in your Web page citation, the better.

Online Full-Text sources
Electronic full-text journal articles can present some unique problems in citing. Full-text sources are almost always generated from a print version of the same information. Unlike Internet sources, all the source information is usually present but it may not appear the way it would in the print version of the article. Most notable are page numbers, which may be missing from some online formats. Full-text in PDF format is an exact copy of the original print version and includes all illustrations in their original location in the document and text formatting such as headers and footers, where pagination and other source information typically appears. It is possible to cite the information displayed in this format just as if you held the text version in your hand.

Full-text in HTML, or other computer formats, include all the text from the print version but it has been input separately into the computer. As a result, the original text formatting is lost and illustrations and other incidental material may not appear at all or may be separated from the text. The source information may be included as part of the full-text computer file or it may only be complete in the original citation that linked you to the full-text. You may want to get in the habit of copying the citation results page of your search as well as the full-text itself to be sure you have all the source information.

More difficult are page numbers. The continuous file structure of HTML eliminates any kind of pagination. The source information may or may not include the page number range of the print version of the article. For direct quotes, where you need the exact page number, you can either find a print copy to use or you can treat the article like a Web source and use natural divisions in the text, such as section headings and indicate how many paragraphs after that your quotation appears.

Because HTML versions of full-text articles do not look exactly like the print version, it is important to include the library database information in your citation. This allows your professor to look at the same version that you used so there is no question on page numbers or other differences from the original print version. Typically, database information for the citation includes the name of the database, the name of the database provider, and any relevant retrieval information. The date you accessed the site is also advised since the databases journal holdings may change over time. Herbert Coutts, University of Alberta, explains how to include database information for each of the major citation styles. For example:

Fitzgerald, Mark,  “A plague of plagiarism,” Writer, 115, Issue 7 (July 2002): 16; available from Cal State San Marcos Library Online Indexes, Academic Search Elite, EBSCO Publishing, accessed 17 Sept. 2002.

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Stolley, Karl and Allen Brizee, Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), Avoiding Plagiarism, 24 August 2011, <http://owl.englisenglishh.purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/01/> Web. 29 August 2011.

Herbert T. Coutts, "Citation Style Guides for Internet and Electronic Sources," University of Alberta Library Guides, 5 Aug. 2011, University of Alberta, <http://www.library.ualberta.ca/guides/citation/> (29 Aug. 2011).

Last updated 8/29/2011 by Sue Thompson
Cal State San Marcos Library