Sep 23, 2022

Citation Styles: APA vs MLA, Vancouver vs Chicago Style

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What are citation and citation styles?

A citation style (or formatting style) is a holistic set of rules and guidelines for creating an academic paper. Different formatting styles give papers a slightly different appearance and structure. 

This article will discuss several commonly applied formatting styles: 

Formatting style includes information such as how to format the title and author information, margin and line spacing details, in-text citation rules, and reference formatting, among others. Seasoned researchers can usually identify different formatting styles by simply reading an article. Formatting styles are important to follow when submitting to academic journals or other publications. Always check your target journal’s Guide for Authors section before drafting and editing your journal manuscript.

Formatting References and Author List

One of the most important parts of a research document, academic manuscript, or term paper is the bibliography or reference section. Different subject areas, university departments, and academic journals require different citation styles for in-text citations and reference sections. This article explores four of the most common academic referencing and citation style formats (APA Style, MLA Style, Chicago Style, and Vancouver Style) for academia and popular journal publications. It also answers common FAQs that students and researchers have about how to choose the best citation style for their work.

Types of Citation

Before we discuss the differences between the various reference or citation style guides, let’s talk about different types of citations that are used in academic documents.

If you refer to a published work, you must provide details so that readers and other researchers can locate and review the original source. Sources can be cited using either endnotes/footnotes or in-text citations. Both styles require a reference list at the end of the document.

Parenthetical citationWhen you cite a source in your writing (either via direct quote or paraphrasing), you are required to add an in-text citation. A citation of an original source within parentheses in your text is known as an in-text parenthetical citation
Footnotes / EndnotesEndnotes and footnotes are simple notation systems that allow you to use numbers in the body of a text to reference a cited work. The number corresponds to further information or a citation entry found at the end of a manuscript (for endnotes) or at the bottom of the page where the cited reference is mentioned (for footnotes). 
Reference listsA reference list gathers all of the works cited within a document at the end of a manuscript. It is required no matter how you cite your sources in your article.

Which citation style should I use for my paper?

The most important consideration when choosing which citation style to use is the guidelines of the academic journal or the professor or department of your academic field. However, the section below provides some formatting styles for specific types of academic documents.

Citation styles for college essays

Class syllabusCheck your class on Canvas, Blackboard, or wherever your syllabus is posted to see which citation style you should apply.
Class professorIf you are enrolled in a class, email or talk to your professor to confirm your citation style. As a general rule, the humanities applies MLA Style, the social sciences uses APA, and the hard sciences vary a bit more by academic discipline.

Citation Styles for thesis and dissertation by academic department and field

If you are a researcher or a master’s or PhD student writing a dissertation or thesis, use the following resources:

Departmental guidelinesEven within a university, different departments and subjects have different (and very strict) submission guidelines for terminal academic works (thesis or dissertation). For example, Harvard University uses Chicago or MLA style.
Thesis advisorYour first point of contact should be your thesis/dissertation advisor. Follow up with your advisor if there is any ambiguity, such as cross-departmental courses of study (e.g., Biomedical Engineering as part of the Colleges of Engineering and Arts and Sciences).
Academic fieldDifferent citation styles are applied for certain subjects. For example, MLA style is commonly used by writers and students preparing manuscripts in disciplines in the humanities, such as cultural studies, English, literature, and critical theory. 

Best Citation Styles for Journal Submissions

Academic journals usually have their own specific citation style guidelines. In general, most humanities journals use APA or MLA format, while most journals in the sciences use a variation of the Chicago style author-date system. Again, see the Guide for Authors page on your target journal’s website to determine which citation style to use.

A key difference between citation styles in journals is how they handle citing sources with multiple authors. Some journals prescribe using “et al.” for more than one author or more than three authors. For example, Nature and Science even have their own completely separate citation styles. 

Citation Styles: APA vs MLA Format

This table contains frequently asked questions students and researchers have about APA vs MLA format and breaks them down into convenient answers authors can use to learn the basics of their specific academic style. As APA and MLA styles are by far the most popular in the humanities and social sciences, these formatting styles should be well learned by students in these associated subject areas.

APA StyleMLA Style
What is the main consideration?DateAuthor
Title of reference listReferencesWorks Cited
Footnotes or endnotesN/AN/A
Order of sourcesAlphabetical by author’s last nameAlphabetical by author’s last name
Format of reference listSee APA format guidelines hereSee MLA format guidelines here
Author formatLast name and initialsFull first and last names
Use of “and” when more than one authorUse “&” Use “and” 
In-text citation format(Author, year, page)(Author page)

APA vs MLA format: in-text citations

  • Both MLA and APA styles use parenthetical citations to cite sources in the text. But they call for slightly different information to be included in the parentheses ( ). 
  • An APA in-text citation includes the author’s last name and the year of publication. When paraphrasing or quoting a passage in the literature, add the page number as well.
  • If the work is by two authors, APA format calls to separate the author names with an ampersand (&), while MLA uses “and.” 
  • For three or more authors, list the first author followed by “et al.” in both styles.
  • An MLA in-text citation includes the author’s last name and a page number.
APA FormatMLA Format
One author(Kim, 2021, p.134)(Kim 134)
Two authors(Kim & Ephron, 2021, p. 134)(Kim and Ephron 134)
Three or more authors(Kim et al., 2021, p, 134)(Kim et al. 134)

Citation Styles: Chicago vs Vancouver Format

Chicago and Vancouver are not just two world-class North American cities. They are popular formatting styles used in the hard sciences to order information in bibliographies and reference lists, either by number or by date. This table contains frequently asked questions students and researchers have about Chicago vs Vancouver format and breaks them down into convenient answers authors can use to learn the basics of their specific academic style.

Chicago StyleVancouver Style
What is the main consideration?AuthorAuthor
Title of reference listBibliographyReference List
Footnotes or endnotesYes, for Notes-Bibliography formatN/A
Order of sourcesAlphabetical by author’s last nameNumbered and listed in order as they appear
Format of reference listSee Chicago format guidelines hereSee Vancouver format guidelines here
Author formatFull first and last namesLast name and initials
Use of “and” when more than one authorUse “and”Use only numbers for in-text citations; List author names separated by commas in Reference List
In-text citation formatSuperscript number and FootnoteSuperscript or bracketed number

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