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May 17, 2012

Missing Pieces: How to Write an APA Style Reference Even Without All the Information

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Most APA Style references are straightforward to write—the guidance and examples in Chapter 7 of the Publication Manual and on this blog make that possible. We’ve written a good deal about the architecture of a generic reference (the four basic pieces of author, date, title, and source). Sometimes, however, one or more of those pieces is missing, and writing the reference can get more difficult. This post will help you adapt the classic APA Style reference template to fit any situation where information might be missing, as well as show you how to create the corresponding in-text citations for those references. 

The table below shows how to write an APA Style reference when information is missing. It is also available for download as a PDF.

What’s missing?

Solution

Reference template

Position A

Position B

Position C

Position D

Nothing—all pieces are present

List information in the order of author, date, title (with description in square brackets if necessary for explanation of nonroutine information), and source

Author, A. A.

(date).

Title of document [Format].

or

Title of document [Format].

Retrieved from http://xxxxx

or

Retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://xxxxx

or

Location: Publisher.

or

doi:xxxxx

Author is missing

Substitute title for author; then provide date and source

Title of document [Format].

or

Title of document [Format].

(date).

n/a

Date is missing

Provide author, substitute n.d. for no date, and then give title and source

Author, A. A.

(n.d.).

Title of document [Format].

or

Title of document [Format].

Title is missing

Provide author and date, describe document inside square brackets, and then give source

Author, A. A.

(date).

[Description of document].

Author and date are both missing

Substitute title for author and n.d. for no date; then give source

Title of document [Format].

or

Title of document [Format].

(n.d.).

n/a

Author and title are both missing

Substitute description of document inside square brackets for author; then give date and source

[Description of document].

(date).

n/a

Date and title are both missing

Provide author, substitute n.d. for no date, describe document inside square brackets, and then give source

Author, A. A.

(n.d.).

[Description of document].

Author, date, and title are all missing

Substitute description of document inside square brackets for author, substitute n.d. for no date, and then give source

[Description of document].

(n.d.).

n/a

Source is missing

Cite as personal communication (see §6.20) or find a substitute

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Title Variations

As shown in the table, the title of a document is only sometimes italicized, depending on the independence of the source. That is, do italicize the title of a document that stands alone (books, reports, etc.), but do not italicize the title of a document that is part of a greater whole (chapters, articles, etc., which are part of edited books or journals, respectively). Also do not italicize the titles of software, instruments, and apparatus (see §7.08 in the Publication Manual). If you have trouble determining whether something stands alone (such as for a document on a website), choose not to italicize. For examples and more explanation, see the blog post on capitalization and formatting of reference titles in the reference list.

Source Variations

As shown in the Position D column of the table, the source part of a reference list entry can vary as well. It should reflect either a retrieval URL (for online documents without DOIs), a publisher location and name (for print sources), or a DOI (for any document that has one, whether print or online). It is not usually necessary to include a retrieval date for online sources; one should be provided only if the source is likely to change over time, such as with an unarchived wiki page.

Sometimes source information is incomplete but with a little detective work you can find what you need; for example, if you know a publisher name but not its location, you can research the publisher to find the location. Even sources of limited availability can be cited in APA Style, including unpublished and informally published works (see §7.09) and archival documents and collections (see §7.10).

Note, however, that it is not possible to write a traditional APA Style reference if source information is truly missing. The purpose of an APA Style reference is to provide readers with information on how to locate the source that you used, and if you cannot tell them how to do so, you either have to find a substitute or cite the source as personal communication (see §6.20 in the Publication Manual).

Creating In-Text Citations

Create an in-text citation for any reference by using the pieces from Positions A and B in the table above. For most references, this will be the author and date (Author, date). For titles in Position A, use italics for works that stand alone (Title of Document, date) and quotation marks for works that are part of a greater whole (“Title of Document,” date). Retain square brackets for descriptions of documents in Position A ([Description of document], date). For examples and more explanation, see our post on formatting and capitalization of titles in the text.  

We hope this guide to missing pieces will help you as you create your APA Style references.

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