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Citing Online Materials: The Basics, by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Citing Online Materials: The Basics, by Elizabeth Shown Mills
Evidence Explained

Online sources are publications, with the same basic elements as print publications. This core principle applies whether we are using a commercial site, a website created by an individual, or a social-networking site such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

Within this framework, we have just four basic rules to remember:

Rule 1: Most websites are the online equivalent of a book. Therefore, we cite:

• author/creator/owner of the website’s content (if identifiable);

• title of the website;

• type of item (as with a book’s edition data);

• publication data:

• place (URL :

• date posted, updated, copyrighted, or accessed—specify which); and

• specific detail for that citation (page, section, paragraph, keywords, entry, etc.).

Rule 2:  A website that offers multiple items by different creators is the equivalent of a book with chapters by different authors. That calls for two additional items at the beginning of the citation:

• name of the item’s creator (rarely necessary for personal pages);

• title of article, database, image collection, personal social-media page, etc.

Rule 3: A website is a publication, not a repository. Conceptually, the repository is the Internet or the World Wide Web. The distinction matters. When a citation template within our data-management software asks us to identify a repository, we invoke a basic rule covered at 2.19: in published citations, repositories are cited only for manuscript material exclusive to the repository where we used it. Repositories are not cited for published sources. To enter a website’s name as our repository would be to say that the website’s name is not an essential part of the citation. Therefore, the software might automatically omit it in printing out reference notes.

Rule 4: Websites require a thoughtful examination. Identification of authors, creators, and website titles may require scrutiny of not just the relevant page but also its root pages. At each site we use, we should examine its construction and record all information that might help us or someone else relocate the material in the event of a broken link. When we cite material that is available at multiple websites, if all other factors are equal, we should consider which provider is likely to be the most permanent.

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