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4 posts from April 2011

April 28, 2011

Can You Cite Personal Life Experience?

Chelsea blog

Dear APA,

I am writing a paper for graduate school and would like to cite something I have specialized knowledge about because of previous academic and work experience. I no longer remember exactly where I learned it or who I learned it from, but I am sure that I am correct. Do I really have look up everything again? I’m not some world-famous scholar or anything, but I feel like my degree and life experience should count for something. Can I cite myself or my degree in my paper?

—Foggy in Fresno

Dear Foggy,

Unfortunately, personal experience is not something you can cite in an academic paper. First, let’s think about this question in terms of the purpose of the reference list, which is retrievability of the source for the reader. With personal experience, there is nothing for the reader to retrieve—ergo, no citation. Likewise, if you have other nonretrievable sources (personal communications, like personal e-mail and phone calls), these do not get reference list entries either (although they do receive in-text citations, because they involve other people than just yourself).

That brings us to a second point, though: the purpose of citation in academic writing. Consider for a moment the way published authors provide citations in their articles for so many facts that are doubtless part of their personal experience and knowledge by now. They provide sources not because their experience counts for nothing but because part of academic writing is demonstrating that you understand the foundation of knowledge on which your contributions stand. Academic writing is also about weaving your contributions together with what came before into the fabric of scientific thought, for the sake of those who will come after you. Looking up the sources also allows you to verify your facts against the most up-to-date information.

So, in general, you should provide sources for specialized facts and knowledge. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t speak from personal experience or opinion in your writing. In most every paper authors should be coming to their own conclusions about the data or previous research. And certainly there are contexts (such as, say, a personal response or reflection paper) in which drawing upon your own experiences and knowledge is even encouraged.  

I hope this helps clarify the “whys” of citation in academic writing!

—Chelsea Lee

April 22, 2011

Ellipses—When and How?

Paige-for-web-site 75x75 by Paige Jackson

Ellipses—those little dots in the middle of a sentence—can be mystifying. Their purpose is to let the reader know that some part of a quotation has been left out.

Sometimes, text is omitted from the middle of a sentence. The missing text is indicated with an ellipsis:

Original:   He came home, with dogs and parakeet in tow, just in time for supper.

With text omitted:  He came home . . . just in time for supper.

Sometimes, the missing text occurs within two or more sentences.  In that case, four dots are used—a period and an ellipsis—to signal that the gap in text includes the end of one sentence and the beginning of another:

Original:  He arrived just in time for dinner.  Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, he had brought his roommates along.

With text omitted:  He arrived just in time for dinner. . . . he had brought his roommates along.

Note that since the first dot is a period, there should be no space between the last word of the first sentence and the first dot.  Some prefer to capitalize the first letter after an ellipsis if what follows is an independent clause.  So the example above would read as follows:

He arrived just in time for dinner. . . . He had brought his roommates along.

And what about punctuation other than a period?  Other forms of punctuation can be included when doing so helps the reader understand the sentence.  Whether it goes before or after the ellipses depends on whether it comes before or after the omitted text in the original quotation.

Here’s an example where a semicolon is kept:

Original:  He arrived just in time for a sumptuous dinner of broccoli and peanuts; his roommates didn’t find the meal quite so appealing.

With text omitted and semicolon retained:  He arrived just in time for a sumptuous dinner . . . ; his roommates didn’t find the meal quite so appealing.

If instead, we insert an ellipsis for the missing text and don't retain the punctuation, we would be left with two independent clauses but no conjunction or punctuation to guide the reader.

Here’s an example where a comma is retained—this time after the ellipsis:

Original:  He arrived in time to help out with dinner, but his sister had already assembled the casserole.

With text omitted and comma retained:  He arrived in time . . . , but his sister had already assembled the casserole.

Sometimes, punctuation is retained so that the author’s meaning isn’t compromised:

Original:  She found a cockroach in the stew!—much to her horror and hardly the impression she wanted to leave of her culinary skills.

With text omitted and exclamation point and em-dash retained:  She found a cockroach in the stew!—hardly the impression she wanted to leave of her culinary skills.

It’s usually clear on first reading whether retaining the punctuation makes sense.

Typically, ellipses are used only within a quotation, not at the beginning or at the end of a quotation.  A rare exception would be an instance where the sentence could otherwise be misinterpreted.

Finally, in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual a new rule was introduced that calls for using ellipses in references with more than seven authors. For more on this, see Chelsea’s post on Formatting References With More Than Seven Authors.

Ellipses are discussed in section 6.08 of the Publication Manual. For a more elaborate discussion, see sections 13.48–13.56 in The Chicago Manual of Style.



April 14, 2011

How to Use Five Levels of Heading in an APA Style Paper

Chelsea blog by Chelsea Lee

Headings give structure to your writing. They not only tell the reader what content to expect but also speak to its relative position within a hierarchy. The APA Publication Manual (section 3.03, pp. 62–63; see also the sample papers) gives guidelines for up to five levels of heading in a paper, although most papers will need only two, three, or four.

The example below shows font and indentation formatting for when all five levels are used, including what to do when headings follow one another with no text in between. We have previously explained in detail how to format each level of heading.

Anxiety Made Visible: Multiple Reports of Anxiety and Rejection Sensitivity
Our study investigated anxiety and rejection sensitivity. In particular, we examined how participant self-ratings of state and trait anxiety and rejection sensitivity would differ from the ratings of others, namely, the close friends of participants.
Literature Overview
Anxiety and rejection sensitivity are two important facets of psychological functioning that have received much attention in the literature. For example, Ronen and Baldwin (2010) demonstrated....
Participants were 80 university students (35 men, 45 women) whose mean age was 20.25 years (SD = 1.68). Approximately 70% of participants were European American, 15% were African American, 9% were Hispanic American, and 6% were Asian American. They received course credit for their participation.
Recruitment. We placed flyers about the study on bulletin boards around campus, and the study was included on the list of open studies on the Psychology Department website. To reduce bias in the sample, we described the study as a “personality study” rather than specifically mentioning our target traits of anxiety and rejection sensitivity.
Session 1: Psychiatric diagnoses. During the initial interview session, doctoral level psychology students assessed participants for psychiatric diagnoses. Eighteen percent of the sample met the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder according to the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM–IV Axis I Disorders (First, Gibbon, Spitzer, & Williams, 1996).
Session 2: Assessments. All participants attended a follow-up session to complete assessments. Participants were instructed to bring a friend with them who would complete the other-report measures.
Self-report measures. We first administered several self-report measures, as follows.
State and trait anxiety. Participants took the State–Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults (STAI–A; Spielberger, Gorsuch, Lushene, Vagg, & Jacobs, 1983), a 40-item self-report measure to assess anxiety.
Rejection sensitivity. Participants took the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (RSQ; Downey & Feldman, 1996), an 18-item self-report measure that assesses rejection sensitivity.
Other-report measures. We also included other-report measures to obtain independent sources of information about participants’ levels of anxiety and rejection sensitivity.
State and trait anxiety. We adapted the STAI–A so that questions referred to the target participant rather than the self.
Rejection sensitivity. We adapted the RSQ so that questions referred to the target participant rather than the self.
State and Trait Anxiety
State anxiety.
Self-report data. For state anxiety, participant self-report data indicated that participants were significantly less likely....
Other-report data. For state anxiety, other-report data indicated that friends of participants were significantly more likely....
Trait anxiety.
Self-report data. For trait anxiety, participant self-report data indicated that participants were significantly less likely....
Other-report data. For trait anxiety, other-report data indicated that friends of participants were significantly more likely....
Rejection Sensitivity
The results for rejection sensitivity paralleled those for anxiety, demonstrating that....
Strengths and Limitations
Some of the strengths of our research were....
Directions for Future Research
In the future, we hope that researchers will consider multiple sources of information when making assessments of anxiety. We also recommend....

Important notes on formatting your headings:


  • The title of the paper is not in bold. Only the headings at Levels 1–4 use bold. See this post for a clarification on when to use boldface.
  • Every paper begins with an introduction. However, in APA Style, the heading “Introduction” is not used, because what comes at the beginning of the paper is assumed to be the introduction.
  • The first heading comes at Level 1. In this paper, the first heading is “Literature Overview,” so it goes at Level 1. Your writing style and subject matter will determine what your first heading will be.
  • Subsequent headings of equal importance to the first heading also go at Level 1 (here, Method, Results, and Discussion).
  • For subsections, we recommend that if you are going to have them at all, you should aim for at least two (e.g., the Literature Overview section has no subsections, whereas the Method section has two Level 2 subsections, and one of those Level 2 sections is further divided into three sections, etc.). Again, the number of subsections you will need will depend on your topic and writing style.
  • Level 3, 4, and 5 headings are indented, followed by a period, and run in with the text that follows. If there is no intervening text between a Level 3, 4, or 5 heading and another lower level heading following it, keep the period after the first heading and start the next heading on a new line (e.g., see “State anxiety” and “Trait anxiety” at Level 3 in the Results section, which are immediately followed by lower level headings and text). Begin each heading on a new line; do not run headings together on the same line.

Are there other aspects of headings you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments.

April 07, 2011

Using Serial Commas


by David Becker

This week we address the serial comma, seventh in the list of the Top 10 most common APA Style errors as identified by Onwuegbuzie, Combs, Slate, and Frels (2010).

Also known as the Oxford comma, the serial comma is the final comma in a list of three items or more, and it is used immediately before and, or, and occasionally nor. For example, if Simon & Garfunkel had recorded their classic album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme under APA Records, which doesn't actually exist, then that album would have been titled Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme with the serial comma included. This rule also applies to parenthetical citations, in which ampersands are used in place of the full word and. For instance, one would say (Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, & Starr, 1964) instead of (Lennon, McCartney, Harrison & Starr, 1964).

There are various aesthetic and technical arguments for why serial commas should or should not be used. Although they aren’t required in journalistic writing, a distinct advantage of using serial commas is clear, unambiguous language, which is a necessity in scientific writing.

As an example of how omitting a serial comma can create ambiguity, if I were to say, "I had lunch with my parents, Barack Obama and the Prime Minister of Australia," it might seem like Barack Obama and the Australian Prime Minister were my parents, which I can personally assure you is not true. On the other hand, if I were to say, "I had lunch with my parents, Barack Obama, and the Prime Minister of Australia," then each of those items is clearly distinct from one another, and Barack Obama and the Australian Prime Minister are no longer my parents, all thanks to the addition of a serial comma.

For more information about commas and their proper usage in APA Style, see pages 88 and 89 of the Publication Manual, Sixth Edition (4.03 Comma). Also, pages 63–65 go into greater detail about creating lists (3.04 Seriation). You may also find it helpful to read two previous APA Style blog entries about creating lists: one on parallelism and another on commas and semicolons.

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