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3 posts from May 2016

May 31, 2016

You Can Word Count on This

Chelsea blog 2
by Chelsea Lee

Dear Style Expert,

What words count toward the word count in an APA Style paper? Am I supposed to count the title page, abstract, citations, and reference list? Are there minimums or maximums for the word count of a sentence or paragraph? How many words should go in the whole paper? Help me!

—Wordy William


Dear Wordy,

Counting the number of words in an APA Style paper is easy: Count all the words in the entire paper to get the total word count. That includes the title page, abstract, main text, quotations, headings, citations, footnotes, reference list, tables, figure captions, and appendices—everything. This gives an accurate representation of the overall length of your paper and saves you from having to perform elaborate calculations just to know whether your paper is too long, too short, or just right. Use the word count feature of your word-processing program to count the words in your paper.

There is also no set minimum or maximum number of words allowed in a sentence or paragraph. Sentences and paragraphs of any length are technically allowed. However, there are still reasons to avoid very short or very long sentences and paragraphs that have nothing to do with arbitrary word counts. Very short sentences might be abrupt or choppy, and very long sentences might get confusing. Paragraphs shorter than two or three sentences might seem incomplete, and paragraphs longer than a page might contain too many ideas at once. Use very short or long sentences and paragraphs only when warranted by the information being presented.

The word count limit for an entire paper will be set by the journal to which you are submitting your work or by your professor for a university assignment. Limits vary widely and are dependent on the nature of the article you are writing—for example, a brief report will be short but a dissertation quite long.

The word count limit for the abstract is also set by the publisher or professor; abstract word limits vary from journal to journal and typically range from 150 to 250 words (for student assignments, the limit is typically 250 words as well).

If you’ve got other questions about word counts for your particular assignment, your professor or publisher will probably be the best resource for you. Leave any other questions or comments below.

May 12, 2016

Principles of Good Writing: Avoiding Plagiarism

HCooper 3-1-09

by Harris Cooper, PhD

Harris Cooper, PhD, is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. He is the author of Reporting Research in Psychology and editor of the APA Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology. He was the chair of the APA Journal Article Reporting Standards Working Group and served on the Publication Manual Revision Task Force for the sixth edition. In 2009, Dr. Cooper became the chief editorial advisor for APA's journal publishing program. In this role he served as a resource for the editors of APA journals as well as the mediator of disputes between editors and authors and between authors and authors.

Test quote 2Committing plagiarism can have devastating effects on your education or career. Perhaps most distressing is that it is so easily avoided.

Plagiarism involves the copying of text into a new work without crediting it to the original source. The main reasons why people plagiarize are simple. First, they want credit for someone else’s ideas. This motivation can come from a desire to impress others and to foster career advancement. Second, it can occur because people are just plain lazy. They have found a passage written by another that fits their paper well and is expressed clearly. They think it would be too much effort to rephrase and credit the source. 

Instances of plagiarism can range from stealing an entire work, by simply changing the name of the author, to paraphrasing someone’s work and not attributing the ideas to the original written document (Turnitin, 2012). Also, motivation can be used to distinguish among acts of plagiarism (Barnett & Campbell, 2012). Plagiarism can be intentional or conscious. It can also be unintentional or inadvertent; for example, when you read something and then later forget that it had a source other than yourself. Regardless of the motivation, plagiarism is plagiarism, and the possibility of unintentional plagiarism means the steps you take to avoid it ought not be based on your memory alone.

Students often ask “how many words in a row constitute plagiarism?” There is no black-and-white answer to this question. Different people will answer differently. Also, context might matter. For example, it is not unusual to find descriptions of research apparatus and psychological measures that share short strings of words without attribution to the original source, and without engendering charges of plagiarism.

Pull quote 2The first key to avoiding plagiarism is to avoid stealing ideas. This is called “intellectual theft” and it can occur without the material in question having ever been committed to print. When you mention another person’s idea in your paper, say who said it first. If the idea has been around for a while, you can cite the original source, the most representative source, or the most recent source. In most cases, which source is most appropriate will be evident from the context in which it is being cited.

But plagiarism is more than intellectual theft, though passing off others' ideas as your own is just as serious. Plagiarism involves copying words. Your first line of defense against an accusation of plagiarism is using quotation marks. A citation and a quote will protect you from charges of plagiarism. Long quotes, the type that require offset from the regular text by indenting them, are also legitimate but they should be used sparingly and may require the permission of the publisher of the original work. Different publishers have different standards for when their permission is needed. You will have to visit their websites to find this out. Remember however, if your paper contains too many quotes it will look like a mash-up, lazy, and not very original.

Be sure as well to check your citations for mistakes. First, read the referenced material carefully to make certain the ideas you are attributing to it are in there and you have portrayed them accurately. Second, carefully check the spellings and date in the reference. Copy editing can be tedious work, but it is important so that credit is given where it is due. Typically, an incorrect citation will not be viewed as plagiarism as long as the error is minor and it is clearly just a copy editing oversight, not intentional.

Your second line of defense is citing and rephrasing. If you have rephrased someone else’s work, be sure to cite the original source. Sometimes, rephrasing can be difficult because the original authors did such a good job of conveying their ideas. That is no excuse for copying without quotes. It is also where laziness creeps in. When you rephrase, think about your “voice” and how it might express the idea differently. Also, in many instances, you will want to shorten or summarize what the original authors said.

Finally, your last line of defense is using a plagiarism-detection services (e.g., iThenticate, at http://www.ithenticate.com; HelioBLAST, at http://helioblast.heliotext.com). Some charge fees, some don’t. These software programs will compare your paper with millions of other documents found online and in scholarly reference databases. They produce (a) a report that lists the documents that share the most material and (b) copies of those documents with the shared material highlighted. When you submit your paper to a detection service, you will be asked to decide how many shared words in a row should lead to getting flagged.

Pull quote 1bAlthough this may seem like overkill at first, it is a worthwhile step if your paper is long and complex and builds on the work of others as well as your own. Theses, dissertations, and any work being submitted to a professional journal fit this definition. If you are submitting to a scientific journal, the first thing that will happen to your paper is that the manuscript coordinator will submit it to a check. By doing it yourself, you will see what they will see. Also, remember that plagiarism sometimes can be unintentional. This is a great way to check yourself against the unconscious copying of words.

Computerization has made it easy to cut-and-paste the words of others. It has also made it easy to detect when plagiarism has occurred. You can avoid allegations of plagiarism through awareness and honest effort.


Here are two excellent sources of addition advice on avoiding plagiarism:

Roig, M. (2003). Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices. Retrieved from http://ori.hhs.gov/avoiding-plagiarism-self-plagiarism-and-other-questionable-writing-practices-guide-ethical-writing

Stern, L. (2009). What every student should know about plagiarism. New York, NY: Pearson.

You can also read about plagiarism here:

Cooper, H. (2016). Ethical choices in research: Managing data, writing reports, and publishing results in the social sciences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4312023.aspx


Barnett, J. E., & Campbell, L. F. (2012). Ethical issues in scholarship. In S. J. Knapp (Ed.), APA handbook of ethical issues in psychology: Vol. 2. Practice, teaching and research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/13272-015

Turnitin. (2012). The plagiarism spectrum: Tagging 10 types of unoriginal work [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://turnitin.com/assets/en_us/media/plagiarism_spectrum.php

May 02, 2016

Principles of Writing: Passive and Active Voice

Chelsea blog 2
by Chelsea Lee

Few topics in scholarly writing raise as many questions as passive voice. Many writers have gotten the impression that passive voice isn’t allowed in APA Style or that if it is allowed, it is to be avoided at all costs. However, that’s an oversimplification. The reality is that sometimes the passive voice is appropriate, but many writers overuse it.

This post will show you how to identify the passive and active voices, explain the advantages and disadvantages of each, and help you choose the appropriate voice for your writing. Both passive and active voices are likely to appear in the same paper; it is just a matter of choosing the right voice given what you want to express.

Identifying Voice

Here is the classic formula for identifying the passive voice:

A “to be” verb + a past participle + the word by.

  • Active voice: The lion ate the mouse.

Lion eats mouse 1

  • Passive voice: The mouse was eaten by the lion.

Lion eats mouse 2

In the active voice sentence, the actor (the lion) is presented first, followed by the action (eating) and then the object of that action (the mouse). In the passive voice sentence, the order is reversed.

There are two caveats to this formula:

  1. Sometimes the word by is left out of a passive voice sentence but is still implicit in the meaning, for example, in a sentence like “This topic was addressed in the paper.” If you can ask “by whom?” and come up with a coherent answer (such as “by the researchers” or “by Smith”), then the sentence is still in the passive voice even though the word by does not appear. 

  2. Not all instances of to be indicate the passive voice, as in a sentence like “The participants were hungry.” Asking “hungry by whom?” makes no sense, so this sentence is not in the passive voice even though it has a to be verb.

Advantages of the Active Voice

The Publication Manual says to “prefer the active voice” (p. 77), and there are two main reasons why. First, the active voice clearly lays out the chain of events: Lion eats mouse. With a passive voice sentence, the reader must wait until the end of the sentence to discover who was responsible for the action. When used in a long sentence, the passive voice may confuse readers. Second, the active voice usually creates shorter sentences. Although your paper should include a variety of sentence lengths, shorter sentences are usually easier to understand than longer ones.

Here are two common cases in which you should prefer the active voice rather than the passive voice:

  1. Use the active voice to describe your own actions. It is completely permissible, and in fact encouraged, to use the first person to describe your own actions in APA Style. Use I to refer to yourself if you worked alone and we if you worked as part of a group (see PM 3.09 for more).
    • Active voice: I conducted an experiment about body image.
    • Passive voice: An experiment about body image was conducted.

  2. Use the active voice to acknowledge the participation of people in research studies, which is an important part of reporting research (see Guideline 3 on p. 73 of the Publication Manual for more on this). For example, researchers often administer surveys to participants or observe them for certain behaviors. Show with your sentences how participants completed actions, rather than how researchers acted upon them, as in these examples:
    • Active voice: The students completed the surveys.
    • Passive voice: The surveys were completed by the students.

Advantages of the Passive Voice

The Publication Manual also states that “the passive voice is acceptable in expository writing [writing used to give information on a topic or to explain something] and when you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor” (p. 77). Here is an example of appropriate passive voice:

  • First-year students have been underserved by the university administration.

In this sentence, the focus is on first-year students. Depending on the context, this may be exactly what you are going for. The active voice version (“The university administration has underserved first-year students”) puts the focus on the university administration, which is not necessarily what you want. Remember, APA Style doesn’t prohibit the passive voice; it just requires that you use it wisely.

Strategies for Choosing the Appropriate Voice

Both the active and passive voices have uses in scholarly writing, so employ them appropriately. However, newer writers especially tend to overuse the passive voice, which can lead to clumsy, long, and confusing sentences. With that in mind, we recommend the following:

  1. Prefer the active voice over the passive voice to create clear, concise sentences; however, remember that the passive voice can also be an appropriate choice under certain circumstances.

  2. Identify cases of the passive voice by looking for instances of the to be verb + a past participle + the word by.

  3. Try rewriting a passive voice sentence in the active voice to determine which voice more clearly communicates your ideas.

For more on this topic, see section 3.18 of the Publication Manual.

Leave a comment if you've got questions that you want to be answered by us.

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