Note: This is an advanced guide to APA, useful for professional editors, academics, and students looking to bump up their grades with flawless referencing! If you’re new to APA and feel a little lost, check out our introduction to APA referencing. For extra help from APA experts, try our student proofreading services for free, or learn more about our editing services for businesses.
The APA approach to referencing involves citing the author and date of another work in parentheses within the text with a corresponding entry in a reference list at the end of the work.
If you’ve been asked to use the APA referencing style, it is vital to be sure which edition to use. This guide deals with the seventh edition (“APA 7”). The previous version of the guide is no longer available on the APA website, but some guides to APA 6 can still be found online.
Some universities have in-house rules for formatting reference lists, even if they use APA citations, so you should check for any particular requirements. If nothing is specified, use this guide to apply APA 7 – but if you’re a proofreader/editor, add a note for the customer to check with their institution.
Also, pay attention to the requested dialect (usually US or UK English) and note:
- Dialect will not change the spelling of words or use of punctuation in titles or direct quotations, which will depend upon the original work. If you suspect that there may have been an error, simply raise that as a query and suggest that the customer checks with the original.
- Anything that is specifically an element of the referencing system (e.g. positioning of commas and periods) should be consistent within the referencing. If it appears to be different from APA 7 referencing style, then you should leave a comment to note this and suggest that the customer checks with the style preferences of their institution.
- APA 7 does not use quotation marks in referencing. However, if you see that titles have been consistently put in quotation marks, then you should make these consistent (even if their use is different in the text) and leave a comment for the customer to check the style preferences of their institution.
- Words that might be used to describe the format of a source within the reference list (e.g., “catalog”) will follow the rules of the preferred dialect in the same way as the main narrative.
In-text Citations: The Basics
Essentially, the surname of the author of the work and the year of its publication must be given in the text. If it is not known when a work was published, it must be indicated with “no date” (abbreviated to “n.d.”) in place of the year. Works that have been accepted for publication but not yet published are indicated with “in press” in place of the year.
If a specific part of a work is being cited, that detail should be included within the in-text citation, not in the reference list. The reference list should, however, include page ranges for works within a greater whole (e.g. articles in journals).
“Specific parts” include more than direct quotes and page numbers. The most common types are given in the table below.
The citation is given in parentheses, in the same font as the surrounding text, and separated by commas.
The citation can appear within or at the end of a sentence. If the author is mentioned in the sentence (a “narrative citation”), then the citation (which will then just include the year of publication and potentially the specific part cited) will need to follow directly after the author’s name.
In-text citations can therefore take three basic forms:
- Something else (Carter, 1940) is relevant to this example.
- Carter (1940) said something relevant to this example.
- This specific part is relevant (Carter, 1940, p. 64).
APA 7 also allows for other text to appear within the parentheses, and if text within parentheses includes its own citation, the citation should then be separated from the text by a semicolon. You may therefore see:
- This is an example (see Carter, 1940, for more detail).
- There is another way (e.g., citations within parentheses; Carter, 1940).
If the work doesn’t come from an author with a surname – a group, or corporate body, for example – then the name of that organization takes the place of the surname:
- This guide on APA 7th referencing advises… (Proofed, 2023).
And if the name of a group author has an abbreviation, then you should define that abbreviation when the author is first mentioned, and use that abbreviation from that point on (but remember that the reference list at the end must include the full name, not the abbreviation).
Just remember that this rule follows the same principle as for initialisms and acronyms. If the first mention appears in the parenthetical citation (i.e., rather than in the narrative), then the abbreviation will appear in square brackets:
- The American Psychological Association (APA, 2019) says…
- … (American Psychological Association [APA], 2019).
NB: The abbreviation should not be used in the full reference list.
These basic rules will need to be adapted to various circumstances, which we will look at next.
When there are multiple authors of the same work, the main thing to remember is that in-text APA 7 citations name one or two authors. For three or more authors, only the first is mentioned, followed by “et al.” (note that a period is used, because “al.” is an abbreviation). This is the case in every citation, even the first, which is an important change from APA 6 (hence why it is vital to establish which edition is being used at the outset).
NB: In the references, all authors should be listed unless there are 21 or more (see the section Reference List Formatting).
When two authors are named, a narrative citation must spell out “and.” A parenthetical citation, however, should use the ampersand (“&”):
Same Name, Same Year
An exception to only giving the author’s surname is if there are authors with the same surname and publications from the same year. In that case, the author’s initials should be added for clarity.
If multiple works are published in the same year by three or more authors and the works share the same first author surname, include as many author surnames as are needed for clarity (remembering, of course, that “et al.” means “and others” (plural), therefore cannot stand for only one name.
Multiple Works, Same Author
More frequently, you may come across citations for more than one work by the same author. If these are from different years but cited together, there is no need for the author’s name to be repeated. The works are listed in chronological order (i.e., the oldest comes first) with the years separated by commas. If any of the works has no date, that one should come first in the list. Any in-press citations should appear last.
If, however, there are multiple works by the same author and from the same year cited, a lowercase letter should be added to the year to differentiate the works. The lettering is assigned based upon the position of the work in the reference list (see later).
NB: If there are multiple undated works by the same author, then the same principle applies, but the lowercase letter will be preceded by a hyphen, instead of a date.
Citing Multiple Works
If there is more than one work cited in support of a statement, the citations will need to be cited in alphabetical order and separated by semicolons. If the list includes works by the same author, those should appear in chronological order (as above).
What if There Isn’t an Author?
You may see cases where the title of the work is given in place of the author. This is likely because the work has no named author (whether individual or group). In these cases, using the title of the work (the book, article, etc.) is an acceptable variation, but it’s advisable to flag it with a comment to make sure, as quite often customers don’t realize that they can use a group author.
NB: You may see the author given as “Anonymous”, but that should only be the case if the work is actually signed “Anonymous”, so again is worth a comment.
If you’re presented with a reference to a work within a work (i.e., the customer hasn’t read the original but has come across it as a reference in another), this is a secondary citation.
- You should leave a comment suggesting that the customer try to find the original work and refer to that.
- If that is not possible, the approach to secondary referencing is:
- Include the author and year of the original within the in-text citation as well as the author and year of the available work. If the date of the original is not known, then it is omitted.
- Include in the reference list only the work that has actually been read (the “available work”).
The Reference List (Or Is It a Bibliography?)
APA 7 requires a full list of all the works that are cited within the text to be provided at the end of the document. The exception to this is where personal communications are cited in the text; these are not included in the reference list.
The principal formatting requirement is to include the list on a new page titled “References.”
Sometimes, a university will require a list of all the works considered within a piece of work, even if they haven’t all been cited. This type of list is called a Bibliography, but it is not an APA 7 requirement.
- The two terms – References and Bibliography – are often confused. If the customer has used the term “bibliography,” it’s best to flag the issue with a comment and suggest that they check their university’s particular requirements.
Reference List Formatting
APA has certain formatting requirements for references. The only ones you need to apply when proofreading are as follows:
- Start on a new page at the end of the document.
- The title “References” should be in bold and centered at the top of the page.
- No extra line spaces.
- Hanging indent for all references: first line flush to the left, with subsequent lines indented by 0.5 inch (1.27cm).
The works are listed alphabetically, usually by the author’s surname, but sometimes under a group author or by their title. If a group author or title of a work starts with “The,” “A,” or “An,” it should be listed as if that word weren’t there (e.g., a work from the Open University would appear as “The Open University” but would be listed under “O,” not “T”).
- The easiest fix that you may need to make to a reference list is ensuring that it is sorted alphabetically by the first item in each reference. This can be done automatically using a simple tool in Word. Remember, however, to check for and manually reposition any items starting with “A,” “An,” or “The,” as above.
- Where there are multiple works by the same author, they should be listed chronologically with the earliest first (in common with in-text citations).
References in Detail
In essence, there are four elements to include in a reference, in this order:
- Where to find it (usually the publisher or website).
And the punctuation principles are:
- There should be a period after each of the main elements (e.g., between the date and the title).
- Remove any periods after a DOI or URL (because they may interfere with the link).
- A question mark or exclamation mark at the end of a title takes the place of a period.
- Commas or parentheses are used between parts of the same element (e.g., a comma between the names of multiple authors (even if there are only two), or parentheses for the issue number after a volume number).
- The ampersand (“&”) is used before the final author’s name.
NB: Remember that any pointer to a specific part of a work goes in the in-text citation, not the reference list. However, you should be aware that a work that appears within a collection (such as an article within a journal) counts as a work in its own right, and therefore the reference entry does then require further detail so that the reader can locate it.
In general terms, you could use the following as a checklist:
*NB: This is different for journals (including similar publications, such as newspapers and magazines). Here’s how:
- The title of the greater whole stands alone (i.e., it is not introduced with “In” and does not require any editor details).
- The title of the greater whole is presented in title case.
- The page range is not prefixed with “pp.”
- Because the greater whole is the publisher (e.g., the newspaper), the publisher detail is omitted to save on repetition.
Let’s start with the most common types and see how those translate from in-text citations to full reference listings so that you can easily recognize them and, if necessary, fix them.
In this list, “year of publication” is abbreviated to “year.” For particular issues relating to authors and years, please refer to the notes on in-text citations.
If a work has a DOI, then you may see this given in place of the URL.
Here’s where things start to get different, and it’s generally the writer who loses out:
- It’s the director of a film who is credited, both in the text and in the reference list; it may help to remember that the big Oscar award goes to Best Director, not (sadly) the film’s writer.
- For a TV series, it’s the executive producer who takes the Author position in the citation and reference; it may help to remember that a series (think, perhaps of the US version of The Office) may have different writers and directors for each episode.
- For a single TV episode, the writer does go first, but shares billing with the director in both the citation and the reference.
- For a non-classical music album, it’s the recording artist who takes the Author position in the citation and the reference.
- Because there are different contributors credited in the reference, the role of each is included in parentheses.
- Similarly, the type of audiovisual media is given in square brackets after the title.
Some additional information is required here, most commonly:
- The date or month of the article or comment should appear in place of just the year in the full reference.
- If the author of the webpage and the site name are the same, the site name is omitted from the “where to find it” element to avoid repetition.
- If the content is designed to change over time, then the date when your customer retrieved the information should be included before the URL in the format “Retrieved Month Date, Year, from.” Otherwise, it’s not necessary to include a retrieval date.
- The URL where the source is available is included at the end (not followed by a period).
NB: APA 7 contains a specific instruction not to create references or in-text citations for whole websites. Mentions of a website in general (rather than particular information there) should instead simply provide the name and URL of the site in the text.
With a wealth of sources available, the individual components of the four main elements will vary. At the end of this guide is an alphabetical list of some you may come across and how they should appear in APA 7.
The aim of the list is to provide a baseline so that you know the main elements to expect. Consistency of presentation is key, as is the use of the commenting tool to point out where information may be missing – or the format may require checking with the university’s own preferences.
What to Do When the Customer’s Approach Differs
Although APA 7 is quite prescriptive and has been adopted by a number of institutions, those institutions may still have their own style preferences, so here’s what to do when you are presented with a document that differs from what we have covered in this guide:
- Consider whether a customer has done something consistently; if they’ve oscillated between different approaches, it’s likely they’re not sure what they should be doing. Leave them a brief comment to let them know you’ve standardized their approach, and briefly explain how you’ve done so.
- Look to see whether the customer has provided a different version of APA to follow, or the guide preferred by their university. If so, find that online (almost every university makes its referencing guide available on its website, and those are generally easy to search for).
- Follow the customer’s lead unless it’s inconsistent, goes against the version they’ve specified, or is otherwise contrary to the APA 7 approach (e.g., if they use footnotes or don’t provide the author–date information within the text). Note that we don’t change a citation style from one to another as part of the standard proofreading service, so if they’ve exclusively used footnotes, for example, contact Editor Support for advice.
- Acknowledge that variations to the APA style exist; universities may, for example, simply have a style which is based on APA 7. Apply consistency to the document and leave a comment to explain the approach you have taken.
- Contact Editor Support if you are still unsure.
But What About…?
- What about an edition number of a book?
- As may be seen in the listing for an encyclopedia, below, this should be recorded as an additional piece of information within the full reference for the work (it will not affect the in-text citation). The edition number (abbreviated to “ed.”) should appear in parentheses after the title, in roman font, and before the period.
What Falls Outside the Scope of Proofreading?
The main purpose of referencing is for writers to avoid plagiarism. For that same reason, there is a limit on what can be done for a customer. Additionally, some actions might come under our formatting service.
- When proofreading, you do not need to worry about the spacing or font used in the references (or anywhere in the text, for that matter). This comes under the formatting service.
- When proofreading, you do not need to worry about how the tables/figures are presented, although you should comment if the customer has neglected to number or provide a caption for these.
- Do not add or change information within an in-text citation or reference unless there is an obvious typo. (You can comment to advise that they check the original source if it seems to be grammatically incorrect, for example.)
- Do not add citations or references, even if they seem to be missing; leave a comment instead.
- Don’t fill in missing information; leave a comment about what appears to be missing and provide information about how the reference could be written to accommodate it (e.g., “n.d.” if the date is unknown).
- There is no need to check URLs; if they appear incomplete, leave a comment for the customer to check them.
- Don’t guess at which of two inconsistent names or dates may be correct; point the anomaly out to the customer (using a comment at the first instance of the issue) and ask them to check the source.
- Any text that does not form part of the word count (i.e., if the table/figure is an image) can be ignored; just leave a single comment to explain this to the customer (it can go in the comments box when you submit the document through the Proofed dashboard).