How to Cite Sources in an Article

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One question that has come up consistently in the Health Journalism Basics for Nurses workshop is: How do I cite my sources in an article?

It’s a very fair question, and I wish I’d addressed this better in the lessons. Since I didn’t, I’ll do it now in this blog post.

Reporting vs Academic Papers

All of us nurses likely wrote a lot of papers in college, and we had to cite our sources according to a specific style guide. In my case, the university required APA (American Psychological Association) style. These types of academic style guides require footnotes or endnotes for any source, and the source must be cited in a very persnickety way. Here’s an example of APA:

Wang, Y., Wang, Y., Chen, Y., & Qin, Q. (2020). Unique epidemiological and clinical features of the emerging 2019 novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVID-19) implicate special control measures. Journal of medical virology, 92(6), 568–576. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25748

This same study (which you can find here, by the way) would be cited like this if the university required AMA (American Medical Association) style:

Wang Y, Wang Y, Chen Y, Qin Q. Unique epidemiological and clinical features of the emerging 2019 novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVID-19) implicate special control measures. J Med Virol. 2020;92(6):568-576. doi:10.1002/jmv.25748

Aaaand, if for some reason my program had required MLA (Modern Language Association) style, the citation would have looked like this:

Wang, Yixuan et al. “Unique epidemiological and clinical features of the emerging 2019 novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVID-19) implicate special control measures.” Journal of medical virology vol. 92,6 (2020): 568-576. doi:10.1002/jmv.25748

But when you’re reading an article in the Wall Street Journal that refers to this study, do you see any footnote appended to the reference within the text? Do you see a list of sources at the bottom of the article, the way you do with an academic paper?

No. No, you do not.

And since so many of us nurses who want to become writers cut our teeth on academic writing, we wonder how in the hell we’re supposed to cite our sources when we start writing articles for magazines, when they appear to be invisible.

The good news is it’s often way less intense to cite your sources in journalism than in academe.

Always Refer to the Style Guide

Most of the time, after you’ve sold an article to a publication your editor will present you with a copy of the outlet’s style guide. This document often will lay out the types of sources you’re allowed to use, sources you’re not allowed to use, and how to cite your sources. If you don’t receive a style guide, you should ask your editor how s/he prefers sources to be cited.

In reporting, a source list often is for the editor’s (or fact-checker’s) reference only. These editors may ask you to use footnotes or endnotes to reference your sources. These references may then get stripped out for the print or digital version of your article that the reader sees. Or, some publishers will include the source list itself, sans footnotes, in the published version.

For most of my clients over the years, though, I have not been asked to use footnotes or endnotes. Instead I have use two other ways to cite sources for articles: inline and in a source list.

Inline Sourcing

I use inline sourcing when I’m directly referencing material from a specific website or other work. Inline sourcing looks something like:

According to CDC statistics, the COPD death rate has been falling since 2008.

In this case, I’m clearly referencing statistics I obtained from the CDC, so I need to say that right in the text. Depending on the publication’s style guide, I also might need to add a link to the source of that information:

According to CDC statistics, the COPD death rate has been falling since 2008.

You should use this type of citation whenever you’re directly referencing some fact or piece of information that is not common knowledge and that you obtained from some type of source material.

Source List

But let’s say I’m writing a general article about COPD, and I never cite any statistics. Rather, I write something like:

As a lung disease, COPD is more common in people who smoke.

In this case, I’m not referring to any particular data. The information may not exactly be “common knowledge,” though, so I still need to cite my source for this, but I don’t have to do it right within the sentence.

For situations like this, many editors want you to simply provide a source list appended to the bottom of your article. For example, here’s a source list I submitted for an article on gallstones I wrote for Healthgrades.com:

  1. Gallstones. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000273.htm

  2. Gallstones. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/gallstones.html

  3. Cholecystectomy. American College of Surgeons. https://www.facs.org/~/media/files/education/patient%20ed/cholesys.ashx

  4. Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/gallstones

The numbers here are not footnotes and do not refer to any particular references within the text. Rather, these numbers simply denote four separate sources.

A source list like this signifies that I consulted all of these websites for background information on gallstones. Then I wrote a wholly original article based on the knowledge I gleaned from these sources.

What if an Editor Doesn’t Ask for Your Sources?

If an editor or publication doesn’t require you to submit a source list, keep one anyway. 

Right now, as a matter of fact, I’m working with a high-profile media site that doesn’t require me to submit sources for the articles I’m producing for them. I still do it, anyway. And I can sum up the reason why in a single word: liability.

If someone decided to sue that publication (or me personally), claiming plagiarism or something, then I would need my source list to show where I obtained my background information. By keeping my own source list, even though the editor doesn’t ask for it, I can sleep easier at night.

Bottom Line: Track Every Source and Submit Them to Your Editor

As you begin researching sources to inform your article, be sure to track them in some way. Many writers use Evernote for this purpose. I simply list them out in a Word document. Use whatever method works for you.

The techniques I’ve listed here for citing sources are by no means the only ones you may be asked to use. I simply wanted to offer the most common methods I’ve encountered in my career. Always defer to the publication’s style guide or your editor’s instructions.

Questions about this? Post ‘em in the comments!

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Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes BSN RN is known professionally as "the nurse who knows content." By day, she uses her nursing knowledge and creative writing acumen to produce content that drives results for clients. By night, she teaches other nurses how to achieve their dreams of a professional writing career. In between, she takes frequent breaks to drink Cosmos and walk her dog, Mitzi. Elizabeth lives in Albuquerque, NM. She has never met Walter White or needed Saul Goodman.

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