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August 27, 2009

Referencing Gray Literature in APA Style

Anne-80 by Anne Breitenbach

What do the Zapruder video footage of the Kennedy assassination, the Watergate recordings, and simulations of the Stanford Prison Experiment have in common? One thing, of course, is that in different media, each documents an event that has had a profound impact on American society. Another is that though it’s not hard to envision legitimate reasons to cite each in scholarly writing, each also is an example of a source from outside of traditional peer-reviewed literature.

These sources are broadly referred to as gray literature, and they include a treasure trove of source material. However, valuable as these sources can be, they indisputably present some special challenges to the student or researcher wishing to rely on them. First, the sources can be difficult to find. Second, they can be of dubious reliability (heads up, students wishing to cite Wikipedia in your papers). Third, they can disappear without warning from an archive or website. Because of that last point, some have defined gray literature as “ephemeral,” from the Greek root ephemera meaning, literally, “passing in a day.” It’s a lovely word, but it is not a lovely result if chunks of your references have disappeared by the time your reader tries to access them.

In recognition of both their value and problems, we have expanded the examples of non-peer-reviewed sources in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual. In addition to sections on technical and research reports, meetings and symposia, audiovisual media, and unpublished and informally published works, there is an expanded section on citing online sources and a new section on citing archival documents and collections. Many common reference examples are provided in chapter 7 or here on our website.

Two issues are important to highlight for these types of references. The first is that our examples can’t be exhaustive of all possible sources you might cite, so it is important to be flexible. In such cases, find an example that is similar to your source, and adapt it to your requirements. The second is to keep in mind that these sources by their nature may be more difficult to find, thus we suggest that you provide as much information as is necessary to enable your reader to retrieve and use your sources. Most entries will need the author, year of publication, title, and publishing or retrieval date. In addition, they may require additional information necessary for unique identification. Keeping these facts in mind will help ensure a useful citation and reference list when your reader wants to access your sources.

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