Ignoring the Rules – APA 6th and Electronic Editions

May 17, 2012

We’ve been discussing APA 6th in our office this week and have come to a rather interesting conclusion – that the recommended reference style for electronic versions of print books should simply be ignored and that they should simply be referenced as if they were print.

The sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association(APA 6th) has made a valiant, but perhaps not very helpful, attempt to get to grips with electronic book formats by distinguishing them from print formats.

Follow up:

The example APA 6th gives is worth showing in full – you will find it on p203 –

Entire book, print version
Shotton, M.A. (1989). Computer addiction? A study of computer dependency. London, England: Taylor & Francis.

Electronic version of print book
Shotton, M.A. (1989). Computer addiction? A study of computer dependency [DX Reader version]. Retrieved from http://www.ebookstore.tandf.co.uk/html/index.asp

It is useful that the examples are of the same book because it makes the intention clear – where a book has been consulted electronically, information about the format is privileged over information about the original publisher and place of publication. Actually that’s not quite true – the DX Reader version was clearly not in existence in 1989 so the reference for the electronic version has taken its date from the print version. There is no publisher information given, although in this case the URL (http://www.ebookstore.tandf.co.uk/html/index.asp) does point to the Taylor & Francis bookstore. If it had been a Kindle version, however, the URL would have been simply to the Amazon website.

Now, it’s tempting at this point just to follow APA 6th but I think there is a strong case to be made for ignoring their advice and simply referencing the print version even when the copy you have seen has been on a web page or e-reader. This would be particularly the case where the electronic version is either a facsimile of the print edition (books from Massey Library’s EBL collection, for example) or uses its pagination, as many e-reader versions do. Why would we do this?

We need to think about the purpose of referencing. It is –

a) To identify the work and edition
b) To allow the reader to find the work
c) In most cases, especially with references to books, to allow the reader to see what the work said, particularly through referring them to specific numbered pages.

By these criteria the APA 6th reference is deficient on all counts. By ignoring all relevant information apart from author, date and title it fails to allow for the possibility of different editions published in the same year which may have different paginations and illustrations and even quite different content in some cases. If specific pages have been cited in the text, the edition/page number combination is the closest we can come to an absolute in allowing the reader to examine the passage that the author is citing. Page numbers in e-books are primarily based on the print edition – electronic versions sometimes have location numbers but these will vary between different e-readers which is why they often retain the page numbers as well.

The place of publication and name of the publisher can also convey valuable information about the book – identifying New Zealand titles, for example, or distinguishing academic titles from popular ones. The URL pointing to the vendor is not an aid to finding the book – it simply points to one vendor and by omitting the publisher the reference becomes in effect promotional material for one supplier, much as if a product were advertised by the name of a shop rather than by brand name. What is worse, many electronic books do not have a stable URL that has universal meaning for all readers. For example a Massey student citing the bookAntimicrobial resistance in the environment would see the URL –
http://ezproxy.massey.ac.nz/login?URL=http://www.massey.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=818490 –
but this points Massey staff and students to our access to the book and would be of no help to anyone outside the institution. There is massive scope for confusion here.

It might seem a little strange to “go against” APA 6th, but there is a strong case for doing so in this instance. After all what one is saying in a reference is that “I have read (or consulted) book X and on page Y it says this.” Does anyone care that you read it on a Kindle or Kobo? Or will they be more interested to know that it was published in Australia by a major university press. I would argue for the latter and just ignore the American Psychological Association until they arrive at a more common-sense solution, as they have done with journals. That we may have looked at an electronic version really makes little more difference than if we cited a journal article that we had only seen a photocopy of – in the end it’s the details of the work we are citing that counts, not how we came to see it.

Bruce White
College Liaison


2 responses to “Ignoring the Rules – APA 6th and Electronic Editions”

  1. Hamish Bell says:

    Can you please confirm, is this Massey University’s official position when it comes to referencing electronic books using APA 6? It’s on a Massey blog so I’m not sure how to interpret this opinion???

  2. Bruce White says:

    Hi Hamish. That’s a good point you raise but I’m afraid that this is only an opinion, albeit it one that has been thought over and discussed. I’m not personally aware of any mechanism through which Massey could arrive at an “official” position. Our ususal advice is to follow the APA rules but in this instance they were so deficient as to prompt this posting. In the end you need to produce the best and most useful references possible.

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