Whether you’re proofreading a finished reference list or trying to cobble together a citation for a new or nonroutine communications format, understanding what information any reference should contain will help you in your task. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is intended to be both explanatory and fairly comprehensive. Nonetheless, there is no way on earth it could set out examples for every possible type of reference. It does, however, offer an approach for the construction of new sorts of references beyond the various types it catalogues. That approach has been specifically illustrated in this blog already, by earlier postings about manufacturing reference entries for Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Now I’d like to teach you how to fish, as it were, by taking a more general look.
What is that approach? You just need to know the basic building blocks—namely, the generic elements that nearly all references in APA style contain—and then you can adapt them to your particular needs.
The sixth edition of the Publication Manual lays the requirements out pretty bluntly. “Each entry usually contains the following elements: author, year of publication, title, and publishing data—all the information necessary for unique identification and library search” (p. 180). Another way to think of these building blocks, a mnemonic to use in your own construction and review of references, is to remember four interrogatories: Who? When? What? Where?
To be less cryptic and more lengthy, the quartet of queries can be expanded thus: Who created this reference? When was this reference created? What is this reference called? Where does this reference come from (or, Where can my reader find this reference)? Let’s look at these four questions one at a time.
Who created this reference?
The author component is pretty straightforward: the writer(s) of the article, anthology chapter, or book entire; the editor of a compilation; the producer and director of a motion picture; the writer of a letter, an e-mail, or a blog posting; and so on. On the rare occasion when no authorship is attributed and, per APA style, you revert to a title entry (e.g., Publication Manual, p. 200, example 9; p. 205, example 30), this initial whodunnit is still answered. The title entry implicitly tells your reader, “Authorship was checked for but despite the best efforts of the citer, no such information was either given or obtainable.”
When was this reference created?
In most cases, a year will suffice to answer this question. A few reference types require more: for instance, year followed by month for papers and poster sessions presented at conferences (Publication Manual, pp. 206–207), or year followed by month and day for newspaper articles (pp. 200–201) and e-mails and blog posts (pp. 214–215). When no year is available or can be ascertained by hook or by crook, this element is maintained by using the abbreviation n.d., for “no date” (p. 185; p. 203, example 20; p. 205, example 30).
What is this reference called?
Note that here I am referring to the title of the thing referenced itself, not to any larger “container” in which the specific thing referenced may reside. (Information about that container will be part of the fourth generic-reference element, discussed further on.) For instance, as regards a journal article, all of the “what” element is the title of the article, not the name of the journal in which that article appears. (As said above, that journal name will be used later on.) So, too, with a chapter in an edited book: The “what” is the title of the chapter only. The name of the edited book in which the chapter resides is not the “what” described here.
If the item you are referencing does not have a formal title, APA style requires you to provide something to fill out this part of the reference. If no title exists, you must fill in the blank yourself. To indicate that this is your invention, not a formal title, your coined title should be enclosed in square brackets (Publication Manual, p. 209, example 47; p. 212, example 60).
Where does this reference come from (or, Where can my reader find this reference)?
Once you’ve given the author name(s), the year, and the name of the thing being referred to, anything and everything else in the reference entry constitutes the answer to this final question of “where.” References come in more varieties than Baskin-Robbins has ice creams, though, so this portion of a reference has the most permutations. It ranges from the basic journal name, volume, and page span for journal articles to the online versions where that information is supplemented with a DOI or URL. A book chapter’s “where” can be quite involved, what with listing editor name(s), the book’s overall title, a page span, and publisher location and name. References to books available online may dispense with the publisher information, replacing it with a DOI or URL. And books and journals are just the tip of the reference iceberg. There’s a host of new formats (podcasts, tweets, etc.) and a world of nonroutine formats that aren’t necessarily bleeding-edge new (e.g., cuneiform tablets in the British Museum).
All this may sound like a fair amount of ground to cover. Still, it's worth remembering that nearly always, regardless of what sort of reference you're trying to cite, or create, it will rest sturdily on the four-legged framework of who, when, what, and where.