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Which style? The responses

A few days back, I presented a little survey to explore which documentation styles were most prevalent at the K12 and the university levels.  The question came out of a Social Studies Department professional development session.

At our high school, we’ve been using MLA for all but Science Department projects.  Our students move fairly easily between MLA and APA with our NoodleTools subscription or any of a number of other popular web-based citation generators, like EasyBib, BibMe, Son of Citation Machine, Zotero.

As a lifelong student myself, I know that flexibility is a virtue. Over my 35 years of grad classes, my professors and editors had me shifting back and forth among MLA, APA, and Chicago.

But was APA the format our kids would most likely/most often face at the university?  Or would they find a similar mix of styles when they left K12?

I promoted my little Google Forms survey in this blog, on Twitter, on the LM_NET list, and on the ALA InfoLit list.  It pulled responses from both K12 and academic folks, with a larger group of K12 responses, likely because of the nature of my own PLN.

Here’s what I discovered in this informal inquiry.

Responses (297) came in from all over the US and Canada, with a few from Australia, one from Lebanon and one from Kuwait.

At the K12 level, MLA is clearly the most prevalent documentation style.

But responses from university colleagues reveal that although APA may be heavily used, student flexibility is the real expectation.

In the question relating to university use,  APA nudged ahead of MLA, 10% to 2%, but the most frequent of the responses were a combination of (11%) and other (77%).

The open-ended items provided some clarity and one recurring theme: universities do not standardize on one documentation style.

Documentation requirements vary across departments, and often vary within departments depending upon the preference of  faculty members.  APA appears to be the style of preference for science and psychology. MLA, for humanities.

Some representative comments from the survey and the lists:

  • In the field of medicine, AMA style; in the field of nursing APA.
  • Chemistry uses ACS (American Chemical Society), Biology uses CSE (Council of Biology Editors), and Exercise Science uses ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine).
  • MLA – English; APA – Nursing, Allied Health; Communication is evenly split between MLA & APA.
  • Humanities- MLA; Sciences-APA; History- Chicago Style
  • Citation style varies by discipline. Most students are taught/require APA or MLA in their first year courses and then direct students to use the citation style appropriate for their major for their upper division course work.
  • MLA is only used in the English courses.  All other courses use APA.
  • MLA for arts and humanities, APA for sciences, social sciences, engineering and allied health.
  • APA dominates, but MLA is also used.  Biology classes use CBE.
  • At the high school level, because English departments often assign the highest number of research projects, they often get to select the style for the building. Not so at the university.

Here’s a sampling of the more interesting insights from our university (or former university) colleagues:

David Johnston, Public Services Librarian, at Mount Allison University Libraries and Archives (NB, Canada): My sense (from my time at three different Canadian universities) is that there is quite a bit of variation depending on the department. APA, MLA and Chicago all saw use and I know I’ve written in all of those formats. So, I think students coming out of high school should probably be aware that they may have to learn different formats. In addition, first year assignments usually don’t demand an in depth knowledge of a particular format and learning the basics shouldn’t take much time or effort. Students in first year don’t always know the path they’re going to take through university, and the writing styles that will end up being demanded of them. Having an understanding of the basics and having the flexibility to change as needed seems advantageous.

From Jennifer Calvo: When I was a university librarian, APA was definitely the most prevalently used.  I am now a  first year high school librarian, and I am shocked to see that the county supports MLA across the board!  I work in the same state and in the same area as I did as a state university librarian.  Students have enough difficulty learning one style,  Graduating from high school and immediately having to switch styles when they go to college puts them at a real disadvantage as freshman.

Camilla Baker, of Augusta State University, wrote, It depends on the discipline, Joyce. English will use MLA exclusively; others of the humanities may as well. Psychology and Education will use APA. Historians tend to prefer Chicago. Sociology has its own, ASA. The natural and physical sciences tend to use the styles of either the professional associations they belong to, or the journals they prefer to publish in.  The number of students you have enrolled in a given discipline will determine the prevalence of the mandated style. If, for example, the majority of your majors are in education, with some behaviorists thrown in for spice, then you might consider APA to be prevalent. However, in a university setting, you don’t ignore the others because one has bigger numbers.

So, where do we go from here? I am not sure.

Of course the real point is not really whether or not to use first names or initials, or how to format journal and issue numbers.  Or whether or not to hyperlink. (I frankly like the link.)  And a tiny part of me shyly wonders if we might see a day, in a hyperlinked universe, when we could attribute accurately and appropriately in an even simpler and less stuffy way.

But anyway . . .

The learning is about the value of attribution as an information ethic, that you allow your reader access to your information sources should they want to pursue them, that the authority of your evidence gives your own work greater credibility.

And, back to style. I will present what I learned to our curriculum director and our faculty.  Flexibility is clearly what will be expected of our graduates.  Web-based citation generators certainly ease the pain of shifting from familiar to unfamiliar styles.

I’ll keep you posted.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Fantastic information that I will gladly share with my principal! Thanks!!!


  1. […] the student voice on the panel said “there are more citation styles than MLA!”, and Joyce Valenza’s survey backs up this poor student’s experience. What wasn’t discussed (or asked) was how one […]

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