Citing Internet Sources

by Jay Johansen
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Students and researchers today are faced with the problem of how to properly cite an Internet source in a footnote or bibliography. The Modern Language Association, generally recognized as the authority on citation style, has added rules for some computerized documents to their style guides (like books on CD-ROM), but unfortunately they have not yet developed a style guide for Internet sources.

Thus, several competing proposals are presently in circulation.

With one reservation, we recommend the style proposed by Dr Janice Walker of the University of Southern Florida. Walker's proposal is closely based on the MLA style for conventional "paper" citations, which makes it the most consistent with established styles, and it is the most concise and elegant. It has been endorsed by the Alliance for Computers and Writing.1

Our one reservation is that Ms Walker calls for putting an access or visit date on the citation rather than a creation or modification date. Ms Walker says that she is planning to revise her proposal to add a version number or revision date. She believes the access date is still essential.2 (Note that Internet authors are not always thoughtful enough to put a creation or revision date in their documents. Some software will report the file's computer-generated last-change date, but this is unreliable: it may not be the date the article was actually written, but rather the date it was copied or restored from a back-up.)

The "Walker style" with this modification would be as follows:

Author. "Article title." Major title. Revision date. URL (access date)
For example, to cite this article, you would say (I'll assume you access it in December 2000)
Johansen, Jay. "Citing Internet Sources." Rev 9/2000. http://www.pregnantpause.org/admin/cite.htm (12/2000)
The "major work" component is be used when a collection of Internet documents are clearly grouped under a title. For example, if you were citing one of the articles from Ohio Right to Life's "Questions & Answers" section, you might cite it like this:
Willke, Jack & Barbara. "Viability". Abortion: Questions & Answers. Rev 1991. http://www.ohiolife.org/qa/qa9.htm (12/2000)
Note that this style works for Web pages, files downloaded with FTP, newsgroup messages, etc.

Reliable Sources

On a tangential topic: I have received a number of e-mails from students saying that their teachers will not accept Internet documents as sources, and asking me to provide them with paper sources of information they have found on the Internet. I have obliged these requests,3 but I believe this attitude is ill-informed.

It is certainly true that there is a great deal of junk on the Internet. But there is a great deal of junk in printed sources also. Anyone who thinks that if it's in print, it must be true, is not only naive, but must also be very confused. Do you blindly believe everything in, say, Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and also everything in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations? Everything in the Washington Post, and also everything in the Washington Times? Wow.

Sources of information must be judged on their own merits, not on the basis of the medium used for publication and distribution.


Footnotes

  1. Walker, Janice. "". Rev 4/1995. http://www.cas.usf.edu/english/walker/mla.html (6/1996)
  2. Walker, Janice. Personal communication. mailto:jwalker@chuma.cas.usf.edu (6/1996)
  3. I have obliged these requests because, a) it is not the student who wouldn't accept the electronic source, but the teacher, b) in the case of this particular site, most of the information that we have posted was either originally published on paper anyway, or we have similar information on paper sources, and c) the number of such requests has been small.

Posted 3 Sep 2000.

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