Differences in Citation Styles (APA, MLA, Vancouver, Chicago)

Students, researchers, and even college professors often face a common difficulty when citing sources in their academic writing: how to tell the difference between citation or referencing styles

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 specific citation styles for in-text citations and reference sections.

This article explores four of the most common referencing and citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, and Vancouver) 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.

For citations or references in APA, MLA, Vancouver, or Chicago style, use our FREE citation generator.

Differences Between Citation Methods

Before we discuss the differences between the various reference or citation style guides, let’s talk about citation methods. 

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 citation: When 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 / Endnotes: Endnotes 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 lists: A 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.

What Is The Correct Citation Style for My Document?

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.

Citation Style for College Essays and Dissertations

If you are an undergraduate or graduate student writing a class assignment, use these resources to locate the proper citation style:

  • Class syllabus: Check your class on Canvas, Blackboard, or wherever your syllabus is posted. 
  • Class professor: If you are enrolled in a class, email or talk to your professor to confirm your citation style.

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

  • Departmental guidelines: Even 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 advisor: Your 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 field: Specific 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. 

Read about the Best Citation Style for Science Papers

Best Citation Style for Journal Submissions

Academic journals usually have their own specific citation style guidelines. In general, most humanities journals use APA style, 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. 

Read about How to use “et al.” in your reference citation list

Difference Between Citation Styles – FAQs

This table contains frequently asked questions students and researchers have about APA, MLA, Chicago, and Vancouver citation styles and breaks them down into convenient answers authors can use to learn the basics of their specific academic style.

APA styleMLA styleChicago styleVancouver style
What is the main consideration?DateAuthorAuthorAuthor
Name of reference listReferencesWorks CitedBibliographyReference List
Footnotes or EndnotesN/AN/AYes, for Notes-Bibliography formatN/A
Order of sourcesAlphabetical by author’s last nameAlphabetical by author’s last nameAlphabetical by author’s last nameNumbered and listed in order as they appear
Format of reference listSee APA format guidelines hereSee MLA format guidelines hereSee Chicago format guidelines hereSee Vancouver format guidelines here
Author formatLast name and initialsFull first and last namesFull first and last namesLast name and initials
Use of “and” when more than one authorUse “&” Use “and” Use “and”Use only numbers for in-text citations; List author names separated by commas in Reference List
In-text citation format(Author, year, page)(Author page)Superscript number and FootnoteSuperscript or bracketed number

Other Helpful Wordvice Citation Resources

  • The Wordvice Writing & Editing Guide covers many topics related to academic writing, grammar, and formatting.
  • Our Language Rules articles provide a clear breakdown and examples of rules related to grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and word choice when writing in English.
  • Our FREE Citation Generator can help you cite any website, book, or journal article source in APA, MLA, Chicago, or Vancouver citation style.
  • Our Resource Blog has dozens of articles on academic writing and admissions essays.