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:
- identify your source,
- enable others to locate the source, and
- provide brief criteria to evaluate the source’s relevance and quality.
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
The following list takes a look at traditional citation elements in the Web
- 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.
- 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
Sometimes it is difficult tell if a Web page is part of a larger site
if you didn't navigate to it through the site’s
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 publisher’s
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
site’s 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
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
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
- 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
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 database’s
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.
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).