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October 28, 2010

What Belongs in the Reference List?

.rev3By Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Dear APA Style Experts,

I’m doing a paper for a psychology class that requires our opinion on “the most powerful influences on your view of the world.” I want to cite a conversation I had with my grandmother, but I don't know how to put this information on the reference page. Please advise.

Signed,
All in the Family

We devote a lot of time on the APA Style blog to different ways of formatting references, both in text and in the reference list, but have you ever thought about what qualifies as a reference?

The purpose of the reference list is to “acknowledge the work of previous scholars and provide a reliable way to locate it” (APA Publication Manual, 6th ed., p. 37). Let’s break this statement down and apply it to the question at hand.

Acknowledge the Work of Others
If someone else’s ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work, you need to credit the source in text and in the reference list. This applies whether you are directly quoting or paraphrasing the work in question. If you are building on work that you yourself have previously published, you need to cite that as well. This enables your readers to follow the idea back to its source.

Placing a source in your reference list also implies that you have personally read it. If you read Smith & Hawkshaw’s (2008) opinion of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but not Conan Doyle’s work itself, don’t put the latter in the list. What you have there is a secondary source (p. 178). 

In addition, you should consider the context in which you are writing. In most cases, your source should have some scholarly relevance. For a personal reflection paper, it is appropriate to quote one’s grandmother; for a dissertation on child development, not so much (unless one’s grandmother happens to be Anna Freud).

Provide a Reliable Path to the Source
Part of the purpose of a reference is to lead your reader back to the sources you used. For a book or journal article, this path is pretty straightforward, but for some sources we need to dig deeper. Ask yourself, “How would someone else get here?”

In some cases—like a private conversation—the answer is, “They can’t.” No one else is privy to that conversation with your grandmother. The wisdom she passed on to you is not recoverable by other researchers, so it does not go in the reference list.

This kind of source (private letters and e-mail, personal conversations, phone calls, etc.) is called a personal communication (p. 179). Cite it in text only, give initials as well as the surname of the person involved, and give as precise a date as possible:

My grandmother’s advice was, “Never pass up a chance to eat, sit down, or use a clean restroom” (S. Dean, personal communication, May 14, 1980).

The same approach would apply to notes you took during a lecture, or class handouts that are not posted elsewhere (e.g., the instructor’s website), or a spontaneous piece of street theater.

What About Research Interviews?
One exception to this guideline applies to participants that you interview in your own research. These interviews are qualitative data; they’re part of the research on which you are reporting and do not constitute the work of others. They should never be individually cited or treated as personal communications in APA Style, because this could compromise confidentiality. Researchers are prohibited by the APA Ethics Code from disclosing personally identifying information about research participants (pp. 17—18). Depending on the circumstances, such information could include the date of the interview as well as surname and initials.

How then should you handle the need to quote from participant interviews? Some authors quote participants without distinguishing them at all, like this: “Indeed, a comment by one of our participants illustrates some of these complex issues: [quote follows without other attribution].”

Others identify participants by demographic or other data: “At my age I think we know who we are and what we are. (Female participant, 69 years of age).” You can also identify participants with letters (Participant A, Participant B), nicknames (Sonny, Tracey), or by role (Doctor, Patient).

Final Thoughts
As you write your paper, remember to cite previously published work that influenced you, that you have actually read, and that other researchers can recover. That will make your reference list both useful and complete.

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