APA How-To: Citing and Referencing a PDF -->

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APA How-To: Citing and Referencing a PDF

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Sometimes in research we may come across a digital document in Portable Document Format (PDF form). How do you cite and reference a PDF in APA format? Read on to find out!

APA doesn’t have a specific formatting style for an in-text or reference list entry citation for a PDF. Essentially, this is because the format alone doesn’t provide any usable, fixed reference information to assist a reader in finding that work. But don’t worry! There are two main types of documents that appear as PDFs, and we’ll help you cite them today.

The two main types of documents you’ll likely find in PDF format are Articles/Sections from a Book, and Documents Relating to a Webpage. You may also have PDF documents as part of your course materials, but we have an entry for those in our common reference entry page, so look there if your PDF is part of your course materials.

Journal Article and/or Section from a Book
If you find a PDF when searching in a database like Google Scholar, it might look something like the image below, where we can see that this appears to be a journal article available in PDF form to read.

a journal article available in PDF form to read

If we click on the title of the article to open the page, we’ll see some of the publication information and the abstract, but it might be in a jumbled format that we’ll need to put together in order to properly cite this article.

Journal article publication information in a jumbled format that we’ll need to put together in order to properly cite this article.

In this example, we can see the authors’ names and the title in the center of the page, and the journal title, publication year, and volume and issue numbers at the top left of the page. There’s your citation! Regardless of format you read this article in, because it was published in a journal, this is all the information that you need.

If you click on the PDF directly, it will not have all of the information that you need—so be sure to take note of where you found the article or chapter of a book, because very likely this will list some essential information. If you find the PDF on its own and are unsure of the publication information, you will need to look up the title, authors, and any other information that you can find on your PDF in order to find the original source, since that is what you should cite both in-text and in your reference entry. For a refresher on citing a journal article or chapter in a book, visit our common reference list examples page.

Document Relating to a Webpage
Some webpages produce PDFs of statistics, facts, or public information. If you find one of these PDFs, cite it as though it is a webpage on the site itself unless there is other publication information available on the PDF.

For example, the CDC publishes fact sheets in PDF form on their website. Since these are not printed out and produced in another medium, we’ll cite the PDF as a webpage connected to the main site. In the image below you can see how a link to a PDF might look on a webpage.

How a link to a PDF file may appear on a website.


In this case we’ll click and open the PDF and it will open a new webpage. Below you can see an example of what the open webpage from the PDF link looks like.

After opening the PDF file, look at the beginning for the information needed to cite/reference it in APA form.


Once we’ve opened this PDF, we’ll cite it like a webpage. We know from how we accessed this PDF that the CDC produced this document, so that’s who we will use as our author here since there is no specific author listed. We can also see the publication year at the top and the title of the document itself, which we will consider the title of this webpage. Then, we add the URL for where we retrieved this information.

CDC. (March, 2017). National tobacco control program fact sheets: Data sources and methodologies: CDC office on smoking and health. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/ about/osh/program-funding/ pdfs/fact-sheets-data-sources-methodologies.pdf

Just remember these easy steps when citing a PDF and you’ll find the way to cite it correctly according to APA style guidelines.

1. Find the source—webpage or publication?
2. Find the relevant information (author, title, URL, publication year, etc.)
3. Format correctly based on type of document or webpage
4. Double check your work with our Common Reference List Examples page

That original source is the essential component you need to cite a PDF. If the source isn’t clear, do some digging by searching the title and any other relevant information. If you are unable to find a clear source for that document, try to find the information from it elsewhere in order to provide the reader with a retrievable scholarly resource.


Claire Helakoski
 is a Writing Instructor  at the Walden Writing Center and holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She has taught writing and Composition as well as acted as a writer and editor in a variety of mediums. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and enjoys reading, writing creatively, and board games of all kinds.


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