Essential elements of online citation

Posted by Greten on 28 Dec 2018 under Tips

Research is a useful activity that you can incorporate in overall instructional design as it allows the learners to explore new information as well as fill up the gap in their existing knowledge. Learners are expected to produce output such as essay, term paper, or theses. Research work is also involved in writing textbooks and developing elearning materials.

In any research, one of the most important parts of the work is the proper citation of references. A growing trend in research is the use of web-based sources as references in addition to the traditional printed media.

Visual representation of internet research and citation,: a globe with interconnected nodes. One of the node has a book and another node has pen and paper.There are several formats that you can follow to cite your reference; among the most popular ones are APA (American Psychological Association) style and Chicago style (by University of Chicago Press). Publishers, learning institutions, and other organizations usually have their in-house citation styles that divert a little from one of the popular styles, or combinations of rules from two or more of the popular styles. For that, this article will discuss the common information you need to provide in citing online references.

Electronic versions of printed media

References that are electronic versions of traditional printed media, such as scientific papers accessible in electronic format through the publisher's website, may be cited in the form similar to the printed media plus the URL of the paper.

For example, using the Chicago style, you can site the following scientific paper:

Solbes, J., and M. Traver. "Against a Negative Image of Science: History of Science and the Teaching of Physics and Chemistry." Science and Education 12, no. 7 (October 2003): 703-17.

If it has an online version and you used that as a reference, just append the URL at the end.

Solbes, J., and M. Traver. "Against a Negative Image of Science: History of Science and the Teaching of Physics and Chemistry." Science and Education 12, no. 7 (October 2003): 703-17.

In some style guides, phrases like "Accessed at" or "Retrieved at" may come before the URL.

Web pages that do not derive from traditional publishing

While scientific papers and books, whether in print or electronic format, are still the most professional references that you need to use as much as possible, there are times wherein you need to use a blog post or a web page with no certain format as a reference. As much as possible, your citation should include the following:

  • author
  • published date
  • article or web page title
  • website title
  • URL of the web page
  • the date you visited the web page

Considering the wide variety that web pages and websites are formatted, it can be difficult to determine these pieces of information.

Determining the author

For a blog post, you can tell the author by the name of the person that comes under the title. You can also find the author at the end of the post; it usually comes with a blurb about the author.

If the web page does not provide any clue about the author, try visiting other parts of the website to find who is in charge of maintaining the website. You can assume this person as the author. In some cases, depending on how the website presents the content, you might need to name the organization, instead of any person within that organization, as the author.

Determine the published date

Blog posts usually come with a published date and the date it was last updated or modified. There's no definite rule as to which one you should use. APA advises the use of modified date while Chicago prefers the published date. You can use either as long as you are consistent.

If you cannot find any published or update date on the web page, you can check the source code and see if there's a clue you can find there. Take this web page for example, neither the published nor the update date is shown but you can find it if you examined the source code.

A screen capture of a web page's source code showing its published date and update date.

If you cannot find a date or a year despite exerting effort to find it, write (n.d.)—meaning no date—where published date should go in the citation. Do not use any site-wide date information, such as the copyright year, as publish date.

Determine the article or web page title

The article or web page title is usually either near the top of the web page with more prominent typeface or in the window or tab bar of the browser. If you examine the code, the title is usually enclosed with <title> or <h1> tag.

Determine the Website title

The website title is the name by which the website goes. This is usually, but not always, the name  of the collection of all web pages under one domain (e.g.,

  • If it is a blog, then it is the title of the blog.
  • If it is a website of an organization, then the name of that organization.
  • If it is a subsection within the website of an organization, for example, the website of a research project within the website of a department within the website of a university, use your judgment to see which of them is the appropriate title.

If you will use the name of the organization as both the author and the website title, whether you will repeat it or have it appear only once depends on the style guide you are using. For example, APE style recommends the use the website title or organization as the author if no human author is available, and provide no text where there should be a website title.

Find URL of the web page

You can find the URL of a web page in the address bar. This is obvious but I mentioned it only for sake of completion.

Provide the date you visited the web page

The date you last visited the website usually comes in the form of "Accessed [date]" or "Retrieved [date]. The format of the date also varies with the different citation rules you can use.

In most citation formats, the URL is entered at the end of the citation. It can be within the same text at the date you visited the web page in a format that is like, "Retrieved [date] from [URL]."

Web pages with long URL

The URLs of some web pages can be very long. Printed documents and media have a limited width, so it is inevitable that you will need to break URLs into two or more lines. APA provided the following tips, but they can also be useful if you are following other citation formats:

  1. Fill-up as much of the line and avoid large spaces before the URL
  2. Break the URL before a punctuation mark, except for those within the part "http://" or "https://".

The first tip is merely a typesetting aesthetics but the second tip is more important, as it could lead to misinterpretation if not broken properly. In the following examples, we will use images to present the citation so the device you are using to view this blog will not affect how the examples appear:

A citation sample with large space in the second line just before the URL.

Notice the long space after the accessed date? The URL goes to the next line because it is a continuous string with no character space; the split happened before the URL because there is a character space before it. Following the first tip, you can fix it by breaking the URL as follows:

A citation sample with period at the end of the second line while the URL continues to the third line.

However, the second tip states that you should break it before a punctuation mark, not after. There's a practical reason for this. The period after "seriousscholar" may be interpreted as the end of the reference and make the third line look like an unknown dangling mess. You can change it further as follows:

A citation sample with period at the beginning of the last line

If the URL contains punctuation marks other than a period, never end a line with any of these punctuation marks. Breaking the line after a question mark may also be interpreted as the end of a citation that ends with a question, while breaking after a hyphen can be misinterpreted as joining one word that was cut between lines. For example:

A citation sample with hyphen at the end of the second line.

You cannot tell whether the URL contains the string "how-to-properly" or "howto-properly". You can remove the confusion by moving the hyphen at the beginning of the third line.

A citation sample with hyphen at the beginning of the last line.

If you're citing an online reference in an electronic media such as a website, elearning module, or ebook, there is no need to show the whole URL. The best way is to display it as a clickable link. For example, in the bibliography section below, the titles of the web pages are clickable links. You can also have clickable "click here" text, or an icon indicating external web source.

Online tools that can help in citation

There are online tools that can generate citations. Three of them are linked below:

I didn't test thoroughly whether they perfectly match the format of available styles, but may cover them in details in one of the future posts. They are useful in finding information in the meta tags and automatically append the ones you need to the citations they generated.


Last updated on 28 Dec 2018.

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