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Reasons for Differences in Citation Styles

Deanna Babcock, Consultant

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Before deciding to start on a Master of Arts in English, I had actually gotten my first Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. Switching from social sciences to humanities was harder than I’d expected. One of the most difficult problems I’ve encountered is navigating between two distinct writing styles. Each field has a different set of expectations and values for writers, and these expectations are not immediately easy to recognize or grasp.

The values of each field, however, are identifiable in their chosen citation styles: American Psychological Association (APA) for many social sciences fields; Modern Language Association (MLA) for humanities. These are usually seen just as ways to avoid plagiarism, but the styles reflect the values of the fields that use them. Students are not often given reasons behind why one field uses APA and another uses MLA, or why other fields use additional styles.

While there are several differences between APA and MLA, I have chosen to focus on five of the most significant factors to highlight the expectations of each. Understanding of these differences can help writers identify what a particular field values and why, making writing in said field a less intimidating venture.

  1. Structure

APA is often very structured. Most guides to using APA provide a list or sample of subheadings that are recommended for research reports: Introduction, Methods, Analysis, Results, and Discussion. MLA is less structured and does not suggest using subheadings, though they can be included. This is one reason MLA seems less formal than APA, as the structure and layout are of little importance in the former.

  1. Ideas

In APA, collaboration between authors is important. Researchers build on past work from other scholars to emphasize progress in the field (Dowdey 339). Experiments may be replicated to the very last detail if researchers hope to find new results, or to ensure the results of the first experiment were logical. Original ideas are less important than the methods and results of a study. On the other hand, new ideas are crucial when writing in MLA. The humanities fields value creativity and unique interpretations.

  1. Quotations and Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is more common in APA papers than quotations. The reason is similar to the previous point: in APA, the results and the data are generally more important than a scholar’s exact words (339). Rephrasing the main ideas from a source is usually sufficient. Quotations are more commonly used in MLA, where exact wording is more important. English studies in particular consider a primary source – a book, for instance – to be almost sacred (333). This also leads to page numbers being so important in in-text citations to give readers the opportunity to reference the work. Direct quotations are preferred over paraphrasing in order to respect the author’s words and to avoid potentially misrepresenting ideas by changing the words.

  1. Importance of Years

Many writers are confused about the use of publication years in in-text citations of APA. The reason for putting the years is to show whether sources being used are recent or not (339). In the social sciences, research that is decades old may be outdated, while more recent studies may contain updated information based on further development of knowledge. The year of a work hardly matters in MLA, which deals with books, art, and music that can be centuries old. This also explains why the date in APA is second only to the author on the reference page, and is one of the last things listed in MLA (334).

  1. Evidence and Interpretations

When it comes to providing evidence to support an argument or idea, APA frequently uses data and statistics (338). As the focus is scientific in nature, numbers are crucial for proving a point. In MLA, evidence comes in the forms of quotations, especially from primary texts (332); discussion of a novel, poem, or work of art must include specific references to that work. An author’s individual interpretations and arguments must be backed up in these same ways: data for APA, support from the given text(s) for MLA.

The differences between these two citation styles reflect what is important to the fields that use them. Recognizing the differences and their reasons makes it easier to understand why each style requires certain things, and easier to write for the conventions in a particular style or field.

Dowdey, Diane. “Citation and Documentation Across the Curriculum.” Constructing Rhetorical Education. Ed. Marie Secor and Davida Charney. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. 330-351. Print.

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