How Many Names to Include in an APA Style Reference

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Question: How many authors does it take to write a journal article? Answer: 5,154 or fewer.

But how many should appear in the APA Style reference? The seventh edition guideline is as follows:

For a work with up to 20 authors, include all of the names in the reference. When the work has 21 or more authors, include only the first 19 names, an ellipsis, and the final name (see this guideline in the fifth and sixth bullets in Section 9.8 of the Publication Manual and Example 4 in Chapter 10).

Example Reference for an Article With More Than 20 Authors

Wiskunde, B., Arslan, M., Fischer, P., Nowak, L., Van den Berg, O., Coetzee, L., Juárez, U., Riyaziyyat, E., Wang, C., Zhang, I., Li, P., Yang, R., Kumar, B., Xu, A., Martinez, R., McIntosh, V., Ibáñez, L. M., Mäkinen, G., Virtanen, E., . . . Kovács, A. (2019). Indie pop rocks mathematics: 21 Pilots, Nicolas Bourbaki, and the empty set. Journal of Improbable Mathematics, 27(1), 1935–1968. https://doi.org/10.0000/3mp7y-537

  • Parenthetical citation: (Wiskunde et al., 2019)
  • Narrative citation: Wiskunde et al. (2019)

Note that although the example above and Example 4 in the Publication Manual (Section 10.1) both show a journal article, the guideline applies to any reference that has more than 20 names in the author element.

Why Did the Number Increase?

One factor we considered for all potential updates to the seventh edition was whether a change would simplify the research and writing process. We wanted to eliminate as many obstacles or “hoops” one needs to jump through as possible when writing references. We also needed to ensure that researchers properly credited their sources.

For references, one thing we heard was that remembering when to apply “the ellipsis rule” and getting the format right was difficult (and annoying). This was partly because writers had to apply the guideline in too many references: It is not uncommon for a source to have seven, or eight, or 12 authors, for example.

One proposed solution to that problem was to include all author names. However, we know that it is also not uncommon for journal articles in medical and other fields to have dozens or even hundreds of authors (or as many as 5,154, as noted at the beginning of this post!). Clearly, asking writers to list every author for every reference was not a workable solution.

Instead, we compromised on the number 20. This has several benefits to you as an author and researcher:

  • First, this means you’ll need to include the ellipsis in far fewer references. Because the threshold is higher, for most of your references (those with one to as many as 20 authors), you have a simple guideline: Just include every author.
  • Second, this creates fewer exceptions in your reference list that you need to double-check the punctuation for (when doing your final review of the reference list formatting).
  • Third, increasing the number of authors shown in the references gives more authors credit for their contributions. For a database like PsycINFO, the more names that are provided in the reference list, the easier it is to show the relationships among authors, publications, and topics, and the easier it is to link the cited works and properly attribute each author. This also balances the fact that the new guideline for in-text citations (use “et al.” even the first time when citing a work with three or more authors) reduces the number of times a researcher’s name may appear in a paper. Additionally, this helps alleviate cases where authors who use APA Style references on their curriculum vitae have their own name omitted from a reference to a paper that they coauthored.

Although this guideline will clearly make some references longer than they used to be, in most cases the impact on the reference list as a whole is not extreme. The references won’t become so long that they make reference lists unmanageable. We recognize that if a reference list happens to be full of references with more than 20 authors, it will end up being somewhat longer than before. However, in many cases, this change merely means that for some references in the list a few of those “middle” author names will now be included.

In a printed article, for example, the reference above, which has the maximum number of author names included, is about 1.5 lines longer than it would be in sixth edition style. Furthermore, because the in-text citations for works with three or more authors now shorten to “et al.” immediately, the effect of a longer reference list is somewhat mitigated.

For authors who use a reference manager, this probably won’t result in any more typing, as the software automates the process regardless of how many authors are in the reference. In choosing the number 20, we weighed the needs of journal authors and journal editors, who have article lengths and page ceilings to consider but who also want authors to be properly acknowledged in articles and in research databases.

Have you ever been a seventh (or eighth or ninth) author? It’s time to celebrate: Your name will now appear in APA Style references! Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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