APA Reference – Elements, Examples & Variations

12.05.23 APA citation & referencing Time to read: 6min

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There are specific rules that guide students and researchers on how to cite sources and create reference lists when writing academic works. APA reference is one of the most popular referencing styles used in academic writing. This article discusses the various elements of APA reference.

APA Reference – In a Nutshell

  • APA reference is a guide that helps you cite sources when writing academic works like thesis, essays, and others.1
  • An APA reference usually includes data on the author, date of publication, title, and sources. 2
  • An APA reference may require additional information depending on the type of source. For instance, when citing websites, you may require an URL in the reference.1

Definition: APA reference

  • APA reference is a format used for citing sources used in an academic paper. The APA referencing manual provides fundamental guidelines for constructing reference pages for academic and research papers.1
  • An APA reference typically includes details regarding the author, date of publication, title, and other sources. It may also include other details like a URL, depending on the type of source.2
  • APA reference provides writers with a consistent format for academic writing. Consistency helps students and authors organise their research findings and arguments efficiently.3
  • Additionally, APA reference helps students and authors avoid plagiarism by allowing them to cite their sources.1 Using APA referencing style helps build a writer’s credibility.3

The general APA format guidelines include:

  • 1-inch margins on all sides
  • Double-spacing in the text, including headings and subheadings
  • First-line, 0.5-inch indentation of every paragraph
  • Accessible font-choice e. g Times New Roman 12pt, Calibri 11pt, Arial 11pt, or Georgia 11pt
  • The page number on every page

The elements of an APA reference

APA guidelines demand specific elements in the reference and citation. APA referencing features four main elements.4 They are:

  • Author – The name of the organisation or the last name and initials of the author(s) of the source
  • Date – The year, month, and day when the source was published
  • Title – The source’s title, like the journal, book, webpage, or website title
  • Source – Where the audience or reader can access the source for themselves, like the publisher, website URL, or academic journal
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An in-text citation appears within the text, usually immediately before or after a paraphrased sentence from the source material.4 It includes the author’s last name and the year of publication of the source material. An in-text citation can be parenthetical or included in the paraphrased sentence.3

The APA referencing guidelines for in-text citations are:

  • The citation should include the author’s last name and publication date for the source.
  • If you are using a direct quote, fact, or figure from a particular page, the in-text citation should include the page number where the data is found.5
In-text citation Example
Parenthetical Waking up a sleeping dragon is the beginning of a disaster (Rolland, 1990).
Narrative/paraphrased According to Rolland (1990), waking up a sleeping dragon is the beginning of a disaster.
With page number Waking up a sleeping dragon is the beginning of a disaster (Rolland, 1990, p.31)

More Authors:

  • If a source has multiple authors, the in-text citation should include both their last names. For example, (Michael & Rolland, 1998)
  • If a source has three or more authors, the in-text citation should include the first author’s name and the words “et.al,” and the year.5 For example, (Michael et al., 1998)
  • If the source’s author is unknown, the in-text citation should include the source title instead of the author’s name.4 For example, (The Book of Poems, 1998)

Unknown date:

  • If the source has an unknown date, you can use the words “n.d.,” meaning “no date,” instead of the year.5 For example, (Rolland, n.d.)

The APA reference list is a section of an academic paper where you list all the sources you applied in the paper. It usually comes at the end of the paper, on a new page.3

The formatting guidelines for an APA reference list are:

  • Write the reference list on a new page after the main body, before the appendices
  • Include all sources in your paper (primary, secondary, and tertiary)
  • It should correspond with the in-text citations
  • It should include the author’s information, publication date, title, and source
  • The format may differ depending on the source
Type of source APA reference format and example
Book Author, initial Year of publication, title: Subtitle. Publisher. DOI (if available)
Rolland, K. (1998). History of makeup: makeup advances. Little Black Books.
Webpage Last name, initials, (year, month date). Page title. Site name. URL
Collins, B. (2011, May 10). Anyone can sing. DailyPost. https://www.dailypost.com/anyone-can-sing/

Variations in APA referencing

There are certain variations in APA referencing guidelines depending on the type of source and other elements.2 Those variations include:

  • When referencing multiple sources, the reference must contain all the authors’ initials with commas.
  • If the author is unknown, your APA reference entry can start with the title instead of the author.
  • If the publication date is unknown, write(n.d.) instead
  • If the title of the book or source is missing, you can paraphrase the content instead. For example, “Book about Singing)

The APA referencing manual provides guidelines for listing authors. The author’s name usually appears at the beginning of the reference.

Format: Last name, Initials

  • If you have multiple authors, list all their last names and initials for their first/middle names.2 Separate the names with a comma.
  • For organisation s, include their full name in place of the author’s name.

The date is a mandatory element in an APA reference. It comes immediately after the author’s middle/first name initial.2

Format: (year, month date)

If you do not know the date, you can write “n.d.,” instead.

The title is also critical in APA referencing. It comes after the date.2

You can use descriptions if you do not know the title of the book or the source. In such a case, make the description short and precise.4


Format: .title of page/book.source: subtitle.

  • Rolland, K. (1998, May 20). A book about music.

Finally, the reference ends with the source. The source is where the readers can find the work. It can be a URL, book publisher, or academic journal title.3


  • publisher name. DOI (if available)
  • site name. URL (for online sources)

You can also add the edition, contributors, and page range, depending on the source and the material.1

APA reference: Abbreviations

The table below describes the abbreviations used in APA:

Abbreviation Meaning
APA American Psychological Association
n.d. No date
p/pp P for one page, pp for multiple pages
Et al. Latin – et alia, meaning “others”
DOI Digital object identifier


APA reference is a format used for citing sources used in an academic paper, according to the APA style manual.

The APA reference manual provides clear guidelines for communication, citing sources, and formatting documents.

The basic format is Author, initial Year of publication, title: Subtitle. Publisher. DOI (if available)

An APA reference usually includes data on the author, date of publication, title, and sources. For online sources, it may include a DOI or URL.

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1 Purdue University. “APA Formatting and Style Guide (7th Edition).” Accessed on May 5, 2023. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/apa_style/apa_formatting_and_style_guide/index.html.

2 Southern New Hampshire University. “APA Style: Basics.” Accessed on May 5, 2023. https://libguides.snhu.edu/c.php?g=157152&p=7237990.

3 APA Style. “References.” Accessed on May 5, 2023. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/references.

4 Glion Library. “What is APA Referencing?” Accessed on May 5, 2023. https://library.glion.edu/learning-support/what-is-apa-referencing/.

5 Yang, Hannah. “APA Citation Format Guide: Everything You Need (with Examples).” Pro Writing Aid. January 15, 2022. https://prowritingaid.com/apa-citation.