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A Practical Guide to Digital Citation

A Practical Guide to Digital Citation
TL;DR: Guidelines for citing documents in the digital age.

When composing a good, old-fashioned essay meant to be read on paper, you should choose a good old-fashioned citation style. In the humanities, we usually use MLA Documentation Style, though APA and Chicago are strong choices, too, depending on the needs of your audience and editor. Follow the rules for formatting the documents and citations, and you should have no problems.

However, this document proposes that these tried-and-true — but, let’s face it, moribund in the digital world — documentation styles should be avoided in digital documents — i.e., documents meant to be read, or used, on-screen, via a computer, tablet, or some other digital device.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of digital documents is their hypertextuality. That’s a fancy way of saying that certain sections of the document may be directly linked with other documents, providing context, clarity, nuance, and/or support — just what citing sources should do. In the digital world, intertextuality is the key: if another source is referred to, it should be linked in the most direct way possible.

If you are using a platform with its own method of digital citation, like Wikipedia, be sure to adopt those conventions rather than the ones outlined below.


In the digital paradigm, links are probably the best way to cite research. This guide will be based on the following premises:

  • Sources cited should be as directly accessed as possible;
  • Sources cited should be referred to directly within the referring text;
  • Print sources cited should borrow logically from print citation styles;
  • Common knowledge sources, like dictionaries, should not be cited.

Consider the follow as guidelines for digital scholarship and composition. There are currently no standard ways of digital citation, but here are some considerations for digital citation.

Cite the Most Direct Way

Contextual links within the body of your text that lead directly to the original source will always be the best way to cite. Give the clearest reference within the text, like the document’s title and author, and directly link its first mention only. For example,

In his blog post “A Game of Thrones,” Gerald Lucas states that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series borrows from the tradition of the literary epic.

W3C suggests linking descriptive nouns, not verb phrases; leaving standard punctuation marks out of the link might also be a good idea.[2] Note that in the example, the user is also given a context for the link, and she may pursue the reference if interested. No further parenthetical citation nor works cited entry is necessary. If the post is mentioned again, it needn’t be linked.

Citing Print Sources in Digital Documents

If citing a print source, like a physical book, try to find a resource that either has the complete text of the source available for reading online or that contains all of the pertinent publication information, like a library database or even the Amazon bookstore. It can then be linked in the same fashion as above:

In the “First Advertisement for Myself,” Mailer demands the “finest attention” and he “will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time” (17).

Note here, Mailer’s essay title is linked, but since this is referencing a print document (Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself), the page number is given in parentheses at the end of the sentence, like MLA Citation Style. Remember, the chief responsibility of citations is to give the reader the quickest and most direct line to your sources should she want to follow up. This gives both you and your work credibility.

Unfortunately, not everything has been digitized, and those who still live in a world of print IP seem to want to keep users paying for as long as possible. If the original source is unavailable as full-text online, link to a database that gives the pertinent publication information. Links should be to publicly-accessible databases — not those behind firewalls, like university library proprietary databases. Here are some options:

  • For books, try the Internet Archive, with millions of books that can be checked out digitally. Wikipedia allows users to search using ISBN. Searches return options for full-text and online databases.
  • For articles, Google Scholar finds full-text and periodical bibliographic entries in publicly-accessible databases.

Give References a Context

With the examples above, each of the texts cited have a context; i.e., a reader is given clues about just where the link will take her. Links should be precise; they should always add to your digital document in some way. Avoid linking for the sake of linking. Always include a context — or brief explanation — about your link, like you would a quotation in a scholarly document. See the example above.

Practice Consistency

With any documentation style you choose, try to practice it consistently. If logically it makes sense for you to document a resource in a certain way — say embedding video rather than linking to it — try to continue the practice on subsequent posts.