When to use the APA style

APA - the world's most popular citation style?

A brief history from the very first guidelines to APA 7

The APA citation style is probably the most widely used citation style in the world. Since 1952, the various editions of the “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” have been sold over 15 million times. The manual has been officially translated into over 13 languages, including both well-known styles and many unofficial translations.

In Citavi the APA is 6th Citation style the most commonly used English-language citation style. The DGPs style, a close German-language adaptation of the APA style, follows directly behind in second place. And that statistic doesn't even take into account the many style variations of magazines whose guidelines are based on APA. Even if the dream of a universal citation may never come true, the APA style is well on its way to get there.

How did a citation style get so famous? And not just within the organization in which it was developed, but across the United States - and from there across the world.

The beginning of quotation in the text

It is difficult to imagine today that not so long ago there were neither references in the text nor bibliographies. Until the beginning of the 20th century, apart from initial experiments, only footnotes were used in scientific publications. However, footnotes took up a lot of space and made typesetting difficult, which increased their costs. In the early 20th century, the first scientific journals began to use shorter citation forms, consisting of the name of the author and the year of publication, in the text (Connors, 1999). The complete sources for this short citation could be found in the bibliography at the end of the publication. Outside the United States, this citation became known as the "Harvard System". The name is traced back to a visiting scientist who brought the system back to his home country in Great Britain (Chernin, 1988). In the USA it is more known as the author-date system. Regardless of the name of the system, it became so famous in science that hardly a magazine used footnotes anymore. However, many now use the proof in the text in the form of a number.

At the same time, more and more attempts were made to create formalized rules for submitting a manuscript to a journal. Previously, most authors had formatted their footnotes in what they believed best suited the traditions of their subject. There were several reasons for moving towards formal guidelines: a significant increase in scientific publications and manuscript submissions; new subjects in the social sciences that wanted to be viewed as objective and scientific; scientific institutions that wanted to legitimize themselves and efforts to improve the readability of the articles (Connors, 1999).

The first version of the APA style

All of this ultimately led to the development of the APA style - and that was by no means all of the reasons. As the author of the APA blog Anne Breitenbach (2016) explains, the main reason for publishing these guidelines was to save publishers money and time. Because the manuscripts submitted by the authors were mostly too long, inconsistently formatted and not stringent in terms of content. The guidelines helped authors improve the quality of their submissions.

However, not every member of the APA saw this need. Correspondence from 1904 shows that two prominent figures in particular disagreed over formalization: Edward B. Titchener, director of the psychological laboratory at Cornell University and James Mckeen Cattell, editor of the journals Science, Scientific Monthly and des Psychological Reviews. One of Titchener's arguments, which still has many supporters today, was that focusing on spelling and punctuation would destroy the aesthetic quality of the writing. That was all well and good, but the editor Cattell himself best experienced the headache the standardization of many different variants caused (Sigal & Pettit, 2012). As the APA found more and more members and became more professional, Cattell's point of view became the predominant one. The first guidelines were published in a 1929 edition of Psychological Bulletin reprinted, but with the weakening note that “the committee realizes that it neither has, nor wishes to assume, any authority in dictating to authors, to publishers or to editors; but it suggests the following recommendations for use as a standard of procedure… ”(Bentley et al., 1929).

The first APA guidelines were therefore purely a recommendation.

Did the original APA citation style recommend the author-year system? At first there were almost no guidelines for the actual citation. Most of the requirements related to the form and content of the article in general. The citation details only comprised one and a half of the total of seven pages. And admittedly, the details remained very open. The authors could choose to use either the footnote system or evidence in the text. The latter could either contain a number or some kind of short reference, which was not described in detail. In practice a numbering system was used (Connors, 1999, p. 229). And that although the footnote system was mentioned first in the guidelines and only this was clarified with concrete examples!

The way to the author-year system

Over the years, APA slowly moved further away from the footnotes. Revised guidelines from 1944 prioritized the reference number system. The APA system as we know it today was not developed until the 1950s. However, that almost never happened.

Robert Connors (1999) explains the background:


This 1957 APA Manual is a fascinating little piece of work for the epistemological power struggle it seems to reveal. During the course of its preparation, the project coordinator, Chauncey Louttit, died and was replaced. The booklet was apparently already in press and, indeed, set in type, showing the older APA citation style (parenthetical boldface numbers in text and numbered list of references at end). But after Louttit's death, the Council of Editors, acting at the last moment, overrode his revision and printed his original pages struck through with black lines. Their contents have been replaced by tipped in errata pages, numbered 28a, etc., that detail the "new" APA style (name / date in parentheses). The APA journals began to enforce the new style absolutely a year later. Why and how this occurred is lost in the mists of time, but it certainly looks like some kind of coup de style against the deceased editor. (p. 230)

The reference number guidelines of the late publisher were replaced by the author-year system after his death shortly before going to press. One wonders what would have become of APA if the book had been printed as planned. Would it be as widespread and used as it is today? Either way, the timing was perfect for the author-year system. According to the G.I. Bill in the United States, young men who had served in WWII were now going to college in droves. A simpler citation system became necessary (Connors, p. 233). This fueled the move towards APA first in psychology and then in other social sciences as well as MLA in the humanities. Over time, both styles of citation would spread beyond their disciplines and become widely used. Today, both styles are widely used in basic academic work courses and in various disciplines for which they were not originally intended.

But how did APA stand out so? In all likelihood, this was due to the fact that the field of psychology was becoming increasingly popular. And that applies to both scientists and the population, as many people had to struggle with the consequences of the war. These two factors made APA so popular. That other social science disciplines adopted the style in the 1970s broadened the style's reach even further. Today APA is the de facto standard of social and behavioral, natural, communication, educational, economic and engineering sciences.

Stay relevant

For all students who had to double-check each commas, periods, italics and indentations two or three times, the style seems to be an immutable standard. At the beginning of your studies in the USA you receive your APA manual, which seems like an inviolable set of rules that has always existed and is unchangeable. But that is not the case at all. You only realize that when you look at how the APA style has changed over the years.

Even if the continued interest in psychology and other social science subjects has certainly contributed to APA's fame, the English-language dominance in these subjects also played a part in this. No less responsible, however, is the fact that the APA keeps its guidelines up to date in order to reflect the current conditions of the time. In the 1974 edition, APA added a paragraph on how non-sexist language could be used. This tradition continues to this day. One major change in the seventh edition of the APA Guidelines, published in October 2019, was the introduction of the “they” in the singular when gender was not an issue for the meaning of the sentence. The recommendations for inclusive language have also been expanded.

Of course, the guidelines for citing are of particular interest to students. So what has changed about that?

The seventh edition has simplified some rules in general and made them more consistent. For example, there was a rule when citing a journal article, according to which the issue number should only be given if the pagination within a journal was continuous. Understandably, this rule confused many students. Now issue numbers should always be given. Database names, however, no longer have to be mentioned in the bibliography. Because most articles today have a DOI and not all readers have access to the same databases. Another big change is that the place of publication no longer has to be specified for books.

The changing landscape of the types of sources is mapped in a new section that includes citing online sources and social media posts. You will now find examples of how to quote a Facebook post, a Reddit thread, a tweet or much more.

An overview of other major changes between the sixth and seventh editions of APA can be found on the mybib.com website. For a proof-for-proof comparison, take a look at our preliminary "APA 6 vs. APA 7" PDF file here.

Is APA the future of citation?

In 1999, Connors wrote that the APA style was about to become the de facto standard in all disciplines over the next five decades (p. 232). Could it ever come to the point that all over the world only APA is used for citation?

It looks like more and more magazine publishers are moving towards the APA system. You are turning away from an individual citation system that was specially created by the editorial team of this magazine. Just last week our style team discovered that 319 magazines from Wiley Publishing are now APA 6th Style.

Universities are also following this path. In North and South America, departments or entire colleges or universities usually adopt a well-known citation style such as APA or MLA, rather than individual guidelines drawn up by a department or professor.

In the rest of the world, however, it looks very different. In Germany or Great Britain, for example, there are many so-called "house" styles that have been individualized for a particular university, department or even a seminar. Often times the rules of these styles are not consistent or detailed enough. It could also be argued that the time spent creating a new style would be better spent on teaching or research. After all, there are citation experts who have already given it a lot of thought. Why can't an established style like APA just be used?

Should you already quote from APA or a variant of it? What do you think of the APA style and the increasing standardization of citation styles? We'd love to share your thoughts on our Facebook page Experienced.

To deepen

American Psychological Association. (2019, August 6). Seventh edition of APA's Best-Selling Publication Manual to publish in October with a 700,000 first printing [press release]. Chicago. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2019/08/publication-manual

Anderson, J. E., & Valentine, W. L. (1944, June). The preparation of articles for publication in the journals of the American Psychological Association. Psychological Bulletin, 41 (6), 345-376.

Bentley, M., Hodge, F.W., Passano, E. B., Peerenboom, C.A., Warren, H. C., & Washburn, M. F. (1929). Instructions in regard to preparation of manuscript. Psychological Bulletin, 26 (2), 57-63. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0071487

Breitenbach, A. (2016, July 14). The origins of APA style. APA Style 6th Edition Blog. https://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2016/07/the-origins-of-apa-style.html

Chernin, E. (1988, October). The "Harvard system": a mystery dispelled. British Medical Journal, 297, 1062-1063.

Connors, R. J. (1999). The rhetoric of citation systems, Part II: Competing epistemic values ​​in citation. Rhetoric Review, 17 (2), 219-245. https://doi.org/10.1080/07350199909359242

Sigal, M. J., & Pettit, M. (2012). Information overload, professionalization, and the origins of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Review of General Psychology, 16 (4), 357-363. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028531


About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the only American on the Citavi team, but her colleagues (usually) don't blame her for that. Her passion for supporting scientists in their work brought her a successful degree. But she also likes learning difficult languages, being outside in nature and sticking her nose into a book.