APA Citations: The Method to the Madness -->

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APA Citations: The Method to the Madness

Brittany Kallman Arneson
By Brittany Kallman Arneson, Writing Consultant

Does it ever feel as though the American Psychological Association made its formatting rules especially complex, just to frustrate poor students like you? Often, it’s hard to understand why italicizing this line or capitalizing that word is so important. Shouldn’t you be spending more time and energy on the content of your writing—your ideas?

Believe it or not, there are clear reasons for these guidelines that are directly related to the content of your work. APA rules are actually designed to help you communicate your ideas more clearly. In this blog post, I’ll walk you through a Q & A based on a reference in APA style, highlighting how APA formatting rules are designed to help social scientists communicate.

First, take a look at this sample article reference. (This source is made up, so don’t go looking for it in the library!)

Kallman Arneson, B. (2012). Chocolate as a critical component of effective paper-writing. Journal of Writing and Dessert, 5(2), 12-16. doi:10.1027/0269-8803.20.4.253

Q:  Why does APA require only the author’s last name and first initial to be listed?
A: This rule directly reflects the role of the author in social science writing. Social scientists must remain objective and unbiased, so a social science author’s identity is less critical to the studies they produce than, say, a novelist. Unlike in the humanities, in the social sciences the data a study produces are more critical to the ongoing conversation than who conducted the study.

Q: Why is the publication year listed so near the beginning of the reference in APA, but near the end in some other citation styles?
A: In the social sciences, when a study was conducted is more important than who conducted it. Knowing how recent a study is can help you evaluate its usefulness in drawing conclusions in your own research. So, after the author’s last name and first initial, which helps organize sources alphabetically, the year the study was published is the next most important information in APA style.

Q: Why does APA require article titles to be listed in sentence case, meaning that only the first word, the first word after a colon, and proper nouns are capitalized, even if it is formatted differently in the original source?
A: Unlike the title of a work of fiction, the purpose of an article title is to describe the content of the study. The reader should be able to assess the relevance of the article to his or her own research simply by reading its title. Therefore, it makes more sense to print the titles in sentence case, so the reader can scan them easily for information, just like a sentence.

Q: What is the purpose of URLs and DOIs? Why can’t I just list the database where I found the article?
A: APA requires DOIs or URLs to the journal website, rather than a database, in order to make the resources in your reference list as universally accessible as possible. A DOI, or digital object identifier, is the ideal retrieval information for a source, because it is guaranteed not to change. However, some online articles do not have DOIs. When this is the case, readers are most likely to be able to locate and access the article on the journal website, no matter what kind of database access they have.

That’s it! Are you having a bit of an “aha” moment? Hopefully APA guidelines now feel less random to you, and you’re seeing them more as useful tools to communicate with others in your field.


  1. An excellent guide on APA formatting.

  2. Thank you for the bit on sentence case! I had not gotten that subtlety yet :)

  3. Hello, I have an in-text citation, but I'm confused how to cite, first author 2002, and second author 2021 . Example "Albert et al., 2002 as citied in Kunhenrither, 2021" how would I cite this correctly

    1. Great question! First off, we always recommend trying to use the primary source if possible. If you can locate a copy of Albert et al.'s 2002 article, you can ensure Kunhenrither used their information/wording correctly and with adherence to the original authors' argument. If you can't find the 2002 article, you would create what we call a secondary source citation. You can find information about secondary sources on our website Here: https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/apa/citations/secondarysources Thanks for reading and commenting!