Citation Formats—Why do we bother?

Think about a spam email in your inbox or a bill that comes in the mail—can’t you sometimes tell what a document is just by looking at it? And don’t you like quickly knowing which documents are worth your time to read?  Formatting and referencing styles are like roadmaps for readers.


Easy recognition of a document is the idea behind many of the formatting conventions in academic writing. By following the guidelines of an academic formatting style, you as the author are signaling to your readers that the document is a scholarly essay. You are asserting yourself as a scholar who knows the tricks of the trade and deserves to be part of the scholarly conversation and community. In these ways, formatting guidelines are much more than “rules” to know and write by.


Different disciplines follow different styles.

  • Social sciences usually use APA (American Psychological Association).
  • Natural sciences usually use CSE (Council of Scientific Editors).
  • History usually uses Chicago.
  • Humanities usually use MLA (Modern Language Association).
  • Engineering usually uses IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).


Quick guides to all of these styles and others are available on the UW Libraries website; some are also available in the TLC web resources.


Always check with your professors for any modifications to the style that they require, and remember that the conventions are recorded in manuals and guides, so you don’t have to memorize them all!