Why are there so many Different Citation Styles?

last modified 2016-04-28T16:30:13-04:00

Download a PDF version of this guide.

Different citation styles have developed over time to address the specific needs of different disciplines. Here are some of the most common reasons different disciplines use the 4* main style guides:

Modern Language Association (MLA): This style is widely used in the humanities, since the style is well-suited to literature and archival sources.

American Psychological Association (APA): This style is widely used in the social sciences, since the style is well-suited to quantitative studies and analysis.

Chicago Manual of Style: This style is actually 2 separate styles, one with footnotes or endnotes, and one with the author-date system.

Notes and Bibliography: Widely used in humanities, since it easily accommodates a wide variety of sources, including more esoteric sources.

Author-Date: Intended to be used broadly in the sciences, this style is best suited for scholarly articles and books.

Scientific Styles and Format (CSE Style): These styles are typically used in the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics.


How they’re similar:

MLA, APA, and Chicago Author-Date are all similar in that they utilize brief in-text citations in conjunction with a list of expanded citation information. In all three styles, the in-text citation typically, but not always, appears in parentheses.

APA and Chicago Author-Date both require reference to the date a source was published in the in-text citation.

All of the major citation styles require a bibliographic list of citation information. Depending on the style guide used, this may be called “Works Cited,” “References,” or “Bibliography.”

How they're different:

The Notes and Bibliography version of Chicago Style is not very similar to the other main style guides, as it utilizes footnotes instead of in-text citations.

Scientific styles typically use numbers for each reference in the document, numbered in the order in which they are cited. The references list is not in alphabetical order, but instead follows this numbering scheme for where the references appear. Exact formatting of references and citations varies according to the publisher.


Why can’t we just have one citation style?

It might seem like academic authors can't agree, but really, authors write for different purposes and different audiences, and so the citation styles reflect that.

We continue to use different citation styles for two main reasons: disciplinary differences and tradition. Researchers in different disciplines cite different types of resources, and different disciplines place higher value on different criteria. For example, most researchers in the social sciences are more likely to cite a scholarly article than any other type of source, while a researcher in the humanities might need to cite a variety of source types, including archived personal letters or first-edition works. Over time, organizations like the American Psychological Association created style guides that were meant to help standardize the format of citations within their discipline, focused on the types of works most often used in their field.

The oldest of these style guides have been in use for decades, and been adopted by researchers in similar disciplines. This means that there are large communities of researchers who have traditionally used one citation style for many years, and they are reluctant to adopt a new style. This is especially true when they believe that a new style will not be well-suited to their citation needs.

*You may also hear talk of Turabian style. While this is a separate style guide, it is essentially a modified version of Chicago style, adapted for use in student research papers. Also, keep in mind that there are literally hundreds of different citation styles. The three discussed here are the styles most commonly used in the United States.

This guide is based on information from the official websites of the MLA, APA, and Chicago styles, as well as The Little Bear Handbook.