Section 2.5: The APA Style | Research

Fundamentals of Social Research by Adam J. McKee

In social scientific writing, one of the most important things that writers do is inform the reader exactly where information in their paper came from.  Was it a book, journal article, website, court case, or some other thing? To be able to find a source, you need to know who wrote the source, when it was written, and what the name of it was, and who published it.  If the source is a periodical, you must know the volume and issue information.

To find the material in a source, a page number is extremely helpful.  When a writer tells the reader where to find information, it is called a citation.  There are several different ways to approach this task.  One is to use footnotes. This practice is the standard in legal materials.  The other method is to put information about the source in parentheses next to the material that come from the source.  This type of system is referred to as a parenthetical citation.

The point of a style is to have a common system of formatting and citation such that everyone knows exactly what the writer means.  In this context,  a common system refers to the idea that everyone using the system will format everything in exactly the same way.  Many criminal justice programs and other social sciences use the Style Guide of the American Psychological Association, which is currently in its sixth edition.  The APA system is so precise that if 100 students cited 10 sources correctly, there would be no differences in their reference pages.  They would all be identical.

Of course, in reality, people make mistakes.  This prevents things from being precisely the same.  An element of professionalism is doing the best job you can when creating documents.  Especially with an intricate system like the APA Style, attention to detail is critical.  What follows is a very brief introduction to the style.  See a print copy of the Style Guide (every social science student should obtain one), or visit the APA Style website at             

Anatomy of an APA Paper

Every APA paper should have four basic parts:  The Title Page, Abstract, Body, and References.  Note that some professors will ask you to add or delete elements of the style.  Remember, the APA is not grading your paper; your professor is. If your professor tells you something that conflicts with APA, always go with the professor.  Every single line of text in an APA paper is double-spaced; take care to never quadruple space by pressing enter twice once you have set your line spacing to double space.  Use a 12-point Times New Roman font for everything; do not let Word format your headers and reference page using a different font.

Title Page

The title page of an APA paper should provide your reader with a carefully chosen title.  You should avoid overly general titles that do not explain what your paper is about. Also, avoid fluffy titles that have needless words.  Do not get creative and add elements that are not part of the APA style. Your professor’s name, the date, the fact that the paper is in partial fulfillment of the course requirements, and so forth should not be included.  You should only add extra elements when your professor explicitly tells you to do so.

There are five basic elements that should appear on a title page:  The running head, the page number (which should be 1), the title of the paper, the author’s name, and the institutional affiliation of the author (e.g., University of Arkansas).  For published works, the Style Guide gives instructions for adding an “author note.”  You will not likely need this for a student paper.  The running head should be left justified in the header of your document.  The capitalization is odd, so examine it closely:

Example:  Running head:  THE TITLE OF YOUR PAPER

The page numbering should start on the title page.  It should be right justified on the same line as the running head.  The running head is either the title of your paper or a shortened version of it (if you have a long title).  The easiest way to do this is to put in your running head, insert a plain page number, and then use the spacebar to push the page number over to the right margin.  Note that the running head appears on the second and subsequent pages, but the “Running head:” label is removed. This means that writers using Microsoft Word will need to format the header of the second page differently than the first.  The formatting of the second page will remain consistent for the remainder of the document. The running head on all pages but the first should look like this:


The First element below the header will be the title of your paper.  If your paper has a long title or a division separated by a colon, place the second part of the title on a new line.  Keep your title under 12 words, and do not use any abbreviations. The next element will be your name, centered horizontally on the page.  Use the first name, middle initial (if you have one), last name format. Do not include any degrees or titles of respect (e.g., Dr., Ph.D., M.S., Esq.).  Below your name comes your institutional affiliation; this will usually be a university. Adjust your vertical spacing such that the university affiliation appears on the vertical center of the page.    


The second major element of an APA Style paper is the abstract.  An abstract is a short summary of your paper. While it is the first thing you see as a reader of the paper (because it appears on page two), it should be written last.  When writing your paper, head the second page with the word “Abstract” centered, but wait until you have finished your paper to write the abstract. How can you summarize something that does not exist after all?  Do not indent the abstract as paragraphs in the body of the paper are indented. A good abstract will be a single paragraph between 150 and 250 words. The APA Style Guide allows for a list of keywords to follow your abstract, but you will seldom see this in a student paper.  


The body of your paper (also referred to as substantive content) should appear on page three of your paper, and the title should be repeated on the top of this page.  There is no extra spacing between the title and the beginning of your paper body. Do not begin with a section heading; everyone will assume that the beginning of your paper is the introduction.

Every idea, phrase, sentence, paragraph, organizational strategy, or quotation that did not appear unprompted in your brain should be cited.  Some professors go so far as to require a citation for every single sentence in a paper. Most, however, make an exception for what is considered common knowledge:  Information available from many sources that do not cite the information. For example, one could safely assert that policing is a dangerous profession without a citation.  If, however, a specific number of officers that have died in the line of duty within a specific period is cited, then a citation is required.

As previously discussed, the APA Style is a parenthetical citation system.  This means that the reader is pointed to a source by information provided by the writer in parentheses.

 Rule:  Keep your citations specific.


Many students find it acceptable to write an entire paragraph of text and add a parenthetical citation (e.g., McKee, 2015) at the end.  This is nonspecific and will not pass muster with discerning professors. Instead, introduce the findings or ideas that you are borrowing.  It is best to introduce the authors outside of the parentheses, and then provide the year of publication and page numbers parenthetically. This strategy forces the writer to introduce cited works.

Make sure that the word “References” appears at the top of the last page, centered.  The formatting of an APA Reference page is very specific. The use of the “References” features built into Microsoft Word to automate the reference section is highly recommended.  What goes in italics, what has a period after it, and so forth can create many, many mistakes for which your professor may count off points.

Be sure to include every reference you cited in the body of your paper.  Conversely, nothing belongs in the reference list that you did not cite in your paper.  References are organized alphabetically by the last name of the first author. If you have multiple works by the same author or authors, place those in chronological order.  All of your references should use a hanging indentation, which means the first line is flush left and every line after the first is indented half an inch. All references need an author, date, title, and source.  Because different sources require different information to locate, this is the element that changes the most between publication types.

Journals.  Journal titles should be presented in full (not abbreviated) and italicized.  All major words should be capitalized in journal titles. Do not capitalize all major words in the title of an individual article; only the first word of the title, the first word after a colon or dash, and proper nouns in article titles are capitalized (this is often called title capitalization).  The basic format of a journal is as follows:

Example:  Author, A. X., & Author, B. X. (Date of publication).  Title of article. Title of Journal, volume number, page range.   

Books.  In today’s high technology world, the idea of a “book” is dynamic.  There are three major types of book that the APA Style allows for. Cite a print book as follows:

Example:  Author, A. B. (Year).  Title of book. City: Publisher.

If you are citing a book made available on the web, cite it as follows:

Example:  Author, A. A. (Year).  Title of work. Retrieved from http://xxxxx

For an edited book where different authors wrote different chapters, you want to cite just the author that you are citing, but the editor needs to be mentioned on the reference page:

Example:  Author, A. B. (Year).  Title of the chapter being cited.  In B. B. Editor (Ed.), Title of book (pp. xxx–xxx). City: Publisher.

If you read an e-book on an e-reader, such as a Kindle or Nook, provide the version that you read (e.g., Kindle version) in square brackets following the title, not italicized.

Your internal citations should always include the page number where information can be found if you are citing a source that has page numbers, such as a printed book.

Websites.  Most websites are not designed for scholars or by scholars, thus much of the information that writers would like to have for citation purposes may not be present.  The rule here is simply to do the best you can.

If you have all of the necessary information, cite material from a webpage like this:

Example:  Author, A. (date).  Title of the document. Retrieved from

If you don’t know the date, and the author is a “corporate” author (such as a business or government agency), cite the paper like this:

Example:  Federal Bureau of Investigation.  (n.d.). Mission. Retrieved from

If a website does not have pages and dates, the usual method of an internal citation will not work.  Since the author is absent, use a shortened version of the title in place of the author. If no date is provided, use “n.d.” for the date.  Also, include the paragraph number if no page number is provided.

Example:  Your text ends with a citation ("Community policing," n.d., para. 2). 

In-text Citations

You must give credit when you use another author’s words.  This is done in two major ways. The first is to list every source (properly formatted) on the reference page.  This is not sufficient, however. Within the body of your paper, you need to signal to the reader where particular facts came from.

The general format is to provide the author’s names, then a comma, then the year of publication; this all goes in parentheses.

Example:  Community policing ultimately failed because it was not properly implemented (McKee, 2015). 

The above example is technically correct, but it is not a good one.  The reader can tell that something came from an author named McKee, but exactly what is up in the air.  Since there are no quotation marks, the reader assumes that the author has paraphrased what McKee said. The stylistic rule is to introduce the works you cite in the body of your text.

Example:  McKee (2015) asserts that the "community policing philosophy did not fail" (p. 31), but rather agencies failed to implement the philosophy.  

The above example does a much better job of communicating to the reader just what McKee came up with and what the author came up with.  In this example, the author is taking credit for nothing. A particular phrase is borrowed verbatim from McKee’s work, and the reader knows this because of the quotation marks.  The author has been kind to the reader, providing specific page numbers where the quote can be found. The term asserts suggests that this is merely McKee’s opinion, and it is not a tested hypothesis.

Latin Words & Abbreviations

Academic writers love to use Latin abbreviations in their writing.  In the minds of many, it lends an air of sophistication. Some of these are very common, and others are more obscure.  When writing an APA Style paper, remember that it is formal writing, and you should not use any abbreviations.  Just because an abbreviation is Latin does not make it formal.  The APA does, however, allow for the use of abbreviations within parentheses.  These are very useful for signaling the reader what to expect from a source provided in an in-text citation.


Common Latin Words and Abbreviations

Only Use These in Parentheses in the Abbreviated Form

Abbreviation Translation / Meaning Usage Notes
cf. confer.  “compare” or “consult” Used to indicate opposing information or contrast.  No comma after.
e.g., exempli gratia.  “for example” Use a comma after.
etc. et cetera.  “and so forth” Always comes at the end of a list.
i.e., id est.  “that is” Used to provide specific clarification.  Use a comma after.
viz., videlicet.  “namely” of “that is” Use a comma after.
et al. “and others” Used to keep from repeating a long list of authors in in-text citations.  See the Style Guide for details.
ibid. or id. ibidem.  “refer to the last source cited.” Used in legal materials, but not APA.  Cite everything every time in APA.
supra Latin for “above.” Used in legal materials to refer the reader back to a previous citation.  Not used in APA.
infra “below” or “under” Legal shorthand signaling that a citation will be considered in more detail later.  Not used in APA.
vs. versus Used to indicate two things being compared.  In court cases, use v. rather than vs.



Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  06/11/2021

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APA Citation

McKee, A. J. (2019).  Fundamentals of Social Research.  Forma Pauperis Press.

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


2 thoughts on “Section 2.5: The APA Style | Research”

  1. I’m confused. In the text it states “All of your references should use a hanging indentation, which means the first line is flush left and every line after the first is indented half an inch.” Then in the examples it does not show that. Please advise.

    1. That is something I should fix. The reason, for now, is that HTML, the language of the web, doesn’t support hanging indents. You can easily set those in a Word document using the paragraph settings.

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