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A tale of two reference formats

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Lee, C. (2020, February 19). A tale of two reference formats. APA Style.

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The seventh edition of the Publication Manual features an updated, streamlined reference system. This blog post explains how the new reference system works and provides insight into why the APA Style team decided on this approach.

The two format patterns

References for all works follow the pattern of author, date, title, and source.

Additionally, references follow one of two format patterns: italic title or italic source.

  • Works that stand alone use the italic title format pattern.
  • Works that are part of a greater whole use the italic source format pattern.

The following table contains an example of each format pattern.

Format pattern Example
Italic title (book)

Tompkins, M. A., Owen, D. J., Shiloff, N. H., & Tanner, L. R. (2020). Cognitive behavior therapy for OCD in youth: A step-by-step guide. American Psychological Association.

Italic source (journal article)

Wray, C. M., Arora, V. M., Hedeker, D., & Meltzer, D. O. (2018). Assessing the implementation of a bedside service handoff on an academic hospitalist service. Healthcare, 6(2), 117–121.

Each document type in the Publication Manual (e.g., journal article, book, webpage) uses only one format pattern. The following table lists the most common document types according to whether the work stands alone (italic title format pattern) or is part of a greater whole (italic source format pattern).

Work stands alone (italic title) Work is part of a greater whole (italic source)
Books Journal articles
Reference works (e.g., whole dictionaries, encyclopedias, diagnostic manuals) Magazine articles
Government reports Newspaper and newsletter articles
Other types of reports (e.g., annual reports) Blog posts
Gray literature (e.g., brochures, fact sheets, press releases) Edited book chapters
Ethics codes Dictionary and encyclopedia entries
Conference presentations (except symposium contributions) Conference symposium contributions
Dissertations and theses Entries in mobile app reference works
Unpublished and informally published works (e.g., preprint articles, monographs in ERIC) TV series episodes
Data sets and unpublished raw data Podcast episodes
Software and mobile apps Songs
Tests, scales, and inventories  
Films, movies, TED Talks, webinars, YouTube videos, whole TV shows  
Music albums, podcasts  
Artwork, maps, photographs  
PowerPoint slides  
Social media posts  
Stories on news websites  

Note that for works that are part of a greater whole, you must identify the greater whole and then follow the examples in that reference category to determine what part of the source to italicize. For example, for a journal article, the source is the journal, and the journal title and volume number are italicized.

Implications of a two-format system

A few things become evident when you look at the table of document types arranged by format pattern.

  • Most works stand alone.
  • Thus, most works use the italic title format pattern.
  • The works that are part of a greater whole (italic source pattern) are fairly easy to identify for most people.
  • The specific types of works that stand alone may be more confusing to identify (e.g., reports and webpages are commonly confused for one another).

Because similar works usually share the same format pattern, don’t worry if you are unsure of the specific document type. You don’t need to pick the exact perfect example out of the hundreds in the Publication Manual.

Your reference will usually be correct as long as you get the correct format pattern. Because most works stand alone, follow the italic title format pattern if you are unsure of how to categorize the work.

Example of the reference system in practice

Imagine that you are unsure of whether a work is a report, webpage, or ebook. You might worry that if you choose the incorrect reference example to follow, your reference will turn out wrong, too.

However, because reports, webpages, and ebooks all follow the italic title format pattern, the resulting references are the same no matter which example you follow.

As an example, look at this report from the Brookings Institution. It is labeled as a report, so we know for sure it is a report, but let’s imagine in our bleary-eyed late-night writing session that we overlooked the label. In this scenario, we are unsure whether the work is a report, webpage, or ebook.

The seventh edition manual contains templates for different reference types (see Chapter 10). Let’s compare the templates for reports, webpages, and ebooks.

Document type Author Date Title Source
Report Author, A. A. (Year). Title. Publisher. URL
Webpage Author, A. A. (Year). Title. Site Name. URL
Ebook Author, A. A. (Year). Title. Publisher. URL

All these templates contain the elements of author, date, title, and source. Additionally, all of them use the italic title format pattern. The only difference among them is that the report and ebook templates use the publisher in the source element, whereas the webpage template uses the site name. However, in most cases, including our example, the publisher and the site name are the same.

The reference for the work turns out the same in all three cases because all three cases use the same format pattern.

Correct reference generated from report, webpage, or ebook template:

Gale, W. G., Harris, B. H., & Haldeman, C. (2020). Evidence-based retirement policy: Necessity and opportunity. Brookings Institution.

Confusing pairs

Because there are two format patterns, there is always a line between the patterns. Sometimes two document types seem like they should use the same format pattern, but they don’t. In the seventh edition, a confusing pair has to do with the news.

  • Newspaper and magazine articles are part of the periodicals category and use the italic source format pattern.
  • Articles or stories on news websites are part of the webpages and websites category and use the italic title format pattern.

Here are some examples:

Newspaper article:

Moritsugu, K. (2020, February 4). Hong Kong medical workers strike to demand closed border with mainland China; coronavirus fatality rate stands at 2.1%. Chicago Tribune.


Magazine article:

Kluger, J. (2020, April 21). How people across the U.S. celebrated the first Earth Day. Time.


Story on a news website:

Amos, J. (2020, February 5). World's biggest iceberg makes a run for it. BBC News.

We know this is potentially confusing, so here is some advice:

  • To determine whether you are looking at the website of a newspaper or magazine versus a news website, imagine whether you could have the work delivered to your place of residence.
    • An issue of The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, or Newsweek could appear on your doorstep (these are examples of newspapers and magazines).
    • An issue of BBC News, Bloomberg, CNN, HuffPost, MSNBC, Reuters, Salon, or Vox could not appear on your doorstep (these are all online news websites that do not publish issues).
  • Look at the “about us” page of the website. If you see the words “online newspaper,” “newspaper,” “online magazine,” or “magazine,” or if there is a print subscription you can get, then use the newspaper or magazine format. Otherwise, use the webpage format.
  • For more information and examples, see Example 16 for a newspaper article, Example 15 for a magazine article, and Example 110 for a story on a news website.

How we chose which works use which format

During the development of the seventh edition, the APA Style team carefully considered which reference types should use which format pattern.

To create continuity, we retained the sixth edition format patterns for most works, including journal, magazine, and newspaper articles; books; and reports.

However, we knew that users needed more clarity about how to cite webpages and websites. In the sixth edition, the title of a webpage could be either italic or not italic depending on whether the work stood alone or was part of a greater whole. When the title of a webpage was not italic, the resulting reference had no italic elements, which made it seem incorrect even though it wasn’t.

People were confused. They got into disagreements with colleagues, professors, and editors. They were distracted from the most important task of writing: clear communication. Thus, we assigned webpages to a format pattern: italic title.

The APA Style team designed a two-format-pattern reference system on purpose to make referencing easier.

We chose the italic title format pattern for webpages because it maximizes the chances of users getting a correct reference even if they choose the incorrect document type. If we treated news websites differently than other websites, the system would become more confusing. In the seventh edition reference system, the kinds of works that users most often confuse for one another (ebooks, reports, and webpages) all follow the same format pattern. So even if users select the webpage type when they should have selected the report type, the reference is still correct.

Although writing references for news stories may be confusing at first glance, there are directions for sorting individual works into the proper category. With a little practice, creating references for the news is simple.

If you have questions or thoughts about the reference format patterns, please leave a comment. Thanks for reading all about it!