Web Citations: Headache Extraordinaire?

by Jonathan Adjemian

Published at 2018-09-26


Citing sources from the internet is something most academic writers do all the time; papers can be written without consulting a single sheet of paper. But citing web sources seems to be a continuing source of confusion, trouble, and headache.


Dynamic Development

Part of the confusion comes from how citation styles have developed alongside the internet: no one knew exactly what place web sources would take in academic work, so some guesswork was involved. Rather infamously, the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook’s decided that every citation should end with an indicator of “format”: “Print” or “Web.” As things played out, the marker turned out to be (1) usually redundant, since the format could be inferred from other elements of the citation; and (2) somewhat arbitrary, since someone might consult several formats of the same work (say paper, google books, and an e-book reader) in preparing a text, and to distinguish between them as sources would be unnecessary. (This was removed in the 8th edition – so, yes, since 2016 there has been no reason to ever end a citation with “Print” or “Web.”)


Access dates – the day you consulted the web site – were also once considered essential, but now they’re recommended only in the case of sites whose content may change, such as Wikis (APA and Chicago style), or where a publication or last modified date is not available (Chicago).


Weblinks and Orphans

The Internet itself has also contributed to the confusion. Unlike, say, the numbering of boxes in an archive, web addresses often change. A remodel of a major web site, something that happens regularly, can often mean a new address for every page on the site. As well, internet content hasn’t really been cleanly divided into types of sites or pages in the way that different categories of print publication are, so the question of what style should be applied when isn’t always clear.


Academic journals have dealt with the slipperiness of the web by adopting the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) system, which gives every article (or chapter, for books published with DOIs) a unique short URL with the form “” followed by some characters, which redirects to whatever the current address is. DOIs keep citations manageably short, avoid the problem of “orphaned” weblinks, and allow journal citations to remain more or less the same as always.


It’s Still a Citation

For the many other less easily categorized forms of web content, in general a lot of leeway is allowed. In Chicago style, whether to cite content from an organization without an individual author’s name on the byline by using the organization’s name as author or simply by leaving the author spot blank is basically up to you, as long as you stay consistent. So can be deciding, in APA style, if a given document is a “report” – in which case the organization’s name should be included before the URL (“Retrieved from Agency Name website: http://www...”) – or a document, which only requires “Retrieved from: http://www...” Chicago also maintains that in some cases it’s appropriate to give web sources in footnotes only, without providing a full bibliographic citation anywhere.


A good place to start is to remember that a citation of web source is still a citation. We use citations for two main reasons: to give credit where it’s due, and to make it possible for a reader to consult those sources should they wish. So if I cite a news article written by a reporter as something like:


CBC News Report, 7 January 2017.


I’ve failed on both counts. First, the author of the piece is not being credited (nor, if relevant, is the program that produced it); and second, if the URL were to change, a reader could have to sort through all news reports from that day to find the relevant one. On the other hand, a citation like


An Reporter. “Tasty Treat for a National Treasurer.” News to Fill the Hour, 7 January 2017, CBC News.


avoids both pitfalls. And if it provides more information than a particular publication deems necessary, it’s a much simpler fix to, say, remove the program title than to have to reconstruct missing bibliographic information from an out-of-date weblink.


Keep it Simple

The current APA Manual gives this advice:


In general, we recommend that you include the same elements, in the same order, as you would for a reference to a fixed-media source and add as much electronic retrieval information as needed for others to locate the sources you cited. (Section 6.31)


This solid strategy matches the DOI strategy used by journals. It also may suggest that electronic retrieval information is coming to occupy the same role in a citation as the name and place of a publisher. This makes sense, as today in relation to academic publishing the internet seems rather like a collection of places, different publishers each in their spot. We can expect this to change as digital communication continues to evolve. But it may remain true that, even in the case of a truly revolutionary shift in publishing, an adaptation of old ways of structuring knowledge may turn out to be just as effective than trying to invent new ones.



(See more on preparing web, and other, citations in our upcoming Resource Guide.)





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