Your 7 Basic Rules for Identifying Sources. Just 7.


Elizabeth Shown Mills


If you ever felt like source citation involves too many rules, this list is for you. Yes, in every style guide for every field, each "rule" is there for a purpose; but if you're able to remember them all, you're likely to be an editor or a fuss-pot. For everyone else—normal people who have learned to look up "particulars" in one of those style guides but would prefer to mentally tote around just a short list—here's EE's 7 Basic Rules.



1. If a ‘fact’ is not public knowledge, provide a specific citation to reliable evidence. If we state that the Civil War occurred between 1861 and 1865, that is public knowledge—i.e., well-known and undisputed information that can be easily verified in countless sources. If we state that Hermione Humperdinckle posed as a male and enlisted in 1862, that assertion must be supported by a citation to reliable evidence.

2. Use words carefully. A database of deeds may be a source, but an entry in that database is neither a "record" nor a "document." It's nothing but a database entry—no more authoritative than an index entry would be. A baptismal act entered into a register is a baptismal record, but it is not a baptismal "certificate." A marriage license is not the "marriage record"; it is only a record of an intent to marry. A source may provide pertinent evidence, but citing a source does not constitute proof. Mischaracterizations make it difficult to relocate information and to carefully appraise whatever evidence we do have for an assertion.

3. Remember that citations exist in two stages: working notes and final form. In our working notes, we should include all detail and descriptions necessary to identify the source, retrieve the source, and evaluate the reliability of the data from that source. When we prepare our work for publication, the final form we use may be edited (wisely) to conserve space or conform to the publisher’s style.

4. Never use ibid. in working notes. It is a space-saving convention employed when our notes are edited for their final presentation. Short for ibidem, ibid. means "In the place just cited above."  If we use it during ongoing research, and we insert new data and new source citations, those ibid. references will become disconnected from their proper sources and reconnected to unrelated ones.

5. Always distinguish between published and unpublished materials. This is easy to do.

  • The use of italics for the title of a source means that the source is a published, stand alone work—a book, a website, a CD or DVD, etc.
  • The use of quotation marks for the title of a source means that it is (a) unpublished or (b) it is the title of a small part of some bigger published work whose title you also have to cite.

Sources that are published vis à vis unpublished are typically sought in different ways and found in different places. The extensive use of published sources, to the neglect of original records, also suggests overreliance on secondhand material and weaker evidence.

6. Give credit where due. It is not only good ethics but also helps us evaluate our evidence. If we access a census via an online provider of record images, we would shortchange ourselves to simply cite the census without including the identity of the provider. Considerable differences may exist in readability of any page, depending upon the provider we used and the enhancements that provider applied.

7. Identify sources fully—avoiding personal and regional shorthand, informal names, abbreviations, creative codes, and jargon that may confuse or mislead users of our work. Yes, researchers are expected to learn the conventions of each area in which they work, including quirky sources. While pursuing that education, however, they are making assumptions and publicizing conclusions they reach. Citations that are littered with cryptic codes and jargon that newer researchers do not understand will lead to erroneous conclusions endlessly perpetuated across the Internet. Clarity is far more important than saving space or appearing to be ‘in the know’ about local habits.


Posted 23 April 2015

PHOTO CREDITS: Adapted from "Welcome Thumb Tacks Text," PresenterMedia ( : accessed 20 April 2015), item 10933; used under license.

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