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Workshop: Citation Basics: Common Citation Issues

Tips and Links to accompany the Collins Library 30-minute workshop

"Problem Areas" with Citations

Students often have difficulties with three specific aspects of citation formatting:

  • A student may cite the container of the source, rather than the particular source itself, aka "the container problem."
  • A student might misattribute (or fail to attribute at all) the author of a source, aka "the author problem."
  • A student may be working with a non-traditional source type and be baffled as to how to cite it, aka "the weird source problem"

Advice and solutions for these problems are below!

The Container Problem

The container problem arises when we don't drill down far enough to provide the exact, specific information needed about the source.  This typically happens in two main instances:

  • When using a chapter or essay in an anthology
  • When finding a source in an online collection of sources


Anthologies are frequently used in college.  An anthology may consist of a selection of primary source materials, as in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, or it may contain essays written by different scholars around a single theme.  The important thing to remember is that you want to cite only the piece of the anthology you actually are using.

Compare the citation of the whole book with the citation of just part of the book (in MLA style):


Entire anthology: 

Abrams, M.H., ed.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  5th ed.  New York: Norton, 1986. Print.

Specific work in an anthology: 

Eliot, T.S. "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  5th ed.  Ed. M.H. Abrams.  New York: Norton, 1986. 2174-2177.    Print.


Online collections present another area of confusion.  In the case of online collections, a publisher (such as Sage or Oxford) or a service (such as JSTOR or EBSCO) collects together many different, separate publications and makes them all searchable and available through a full text database.  In these cases, it's important to distinguish the actual source from the container it's in.

A few examples:

JSTOR is a non-profit company that collects and digitizes back issues of scholarly journals.  It then makes these collections available to libraries for a subscription fee. Depending on the citation style, it may or may not be important to indicate "the container." In Chicago style, we are asked to indicate the container at the end of the citation.  Note, however, in the example below that all of the specific citation material comes first (author, title of article, title of journal, date, pages).

Karmaus, Wilfried, and John F. Riebow. “Storage of Serum in Plastic and Glass Containers May Alter the Serum Concentration of Polychlorinated Biphenyls.” Environmental Health Perspectives 112 (May 2004): 643–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3435987.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher of scholarly reference materials.  Most of its reference books are published in both print and digital formats.  Many of the digital editions are collected together in Oxford Reference Online, a searchable, full text database.  If you consult an article in the online collection, you need to be sure to cite the actual book title that it appeared in, not just Oxford Reference Online.  Here's an example, again in Chicago style:

Weitz, Eric.  "Clown." In The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. Oxford University Press, 2010. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199574193.001.0001/acref-9780199574193-e-823.

The Author Problem

We all know that sources have authors, but sometimes it's darn difficult to find out who those authors are!  It's logical to think that in such cases we should assign authorship to "Anonymous."  However, there are some scholarly conventions to be aware of before you do so:

Newspaper articles for which no byline is given are cited with the title of the article itself.  Here's an example in APA format:

As prices surge, Thailand pitches OPEC-style rice cartel.  (2008, May 5). The Wall Street Journal, p. A9.

Sources published by corporations and organizations (including government agencies) typically do not provide the names of the people who wrote them; instead, the practice is to cite the organization as the author.  Sometimes this is called "corporate authorship."  Here's another example in APA format:

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.  (2008).  Effects of preschool curriculum programs on school readiness: report from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative (Report No. NCER 20082009REV).  Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=NCER20082009rev.

The "Weird Source" Problem

So...you're using a source for which there is no example provided in A Writer's Reference or on the brief two-page guides Collins Library provides.  What can you do?  We recommend the following steps:

  1. Try to match your "weird source" as closely as possible to one of the types of sources for which you do have examples.  Often you'll be able to provide enough information in the correct order and style to fulfill the main function of a citation:  to help others track down the source.
  2. Consult the mega-authority, the style guide itself.  Collins Library provides online access to the 1,000+ page Chicago Manual of Style; the other manuals are available on Reserves; just ask at the Circulation Desk.
  3. For newer, or new-ish source types (like tweets), most style manual publishers maintain an online Q&A that anyone can access.  You can check there to see if they've provided examples.
  4. Ask a librarian if you're unsure or if you've been spending too long trying to figure it out!