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The chief difference between citing traditionally-published sources and digital sources is that digital material is often not in a fixed format. When that's the case, it is important to indicate not only where and how you found the material but when you found it. Only by clearly indicating when in a digital document’s life you accessed it can you protect yourself, and your scholarship, from the possibility that your evidence might be altered after you use it.
The MLA’s 8th edition no longer requires a date of access as a core element for every electronic source, and indeed, many web sources publish in a fixed format with a firm copyright/publication date. In these cases a single publication date will be enough, as long as you are dealing with a trustworthy content producer.
For source material with a high chance of deletion or editing – for instance, Twitter posts or blog comments – it is a good idea not only to indicate the date of access but also to keep a copy of the item if at all possible. See the "Archiving Your Sources" tab for some ideas on how to do that.
Identifying the format of an electronic resource can be crucial. If an article is available both on a web page in HTML and as a PDF, the two versions can look very different. The same piece can have entirely different pagination when viewed on screens of varying sizes. Similarly, identifying the source of a digital resource without indicating its format can be misleading; to note that a quote appeared on Twitter, for instance, does not let the reader know whether the original was a tweet, a comment, or a Twitter story, and leaves obscure the question of medium (since a user can tweet text, images, videos, links, and so on).
This electronic-source checklist will help make sure you have all of the information necessary for citing a digital source. Not all citation formats will require every one of these pieces of information, but it is worth collecting all of the data you can.
Citations of digital sources, like any citations, are intended to make your sources as you found them discoverable by your readers. Unlike printed material, digital sources can and do change, and therefore citation of such sources must incorporate information that has never previously been necessary.
The major citation manuals already have citation styles for many common digital sources. As social media platforms and communication apps expand and multiply, however, the information about them becomes more complicated and their citation can require some improvisation.
The following notes offer a bare-bones format for each citation style; more specific information will probably be needed to build a complete citation. Consult either the pages of this guide or the more elaborate structure and examples in the trove of information published by and about each style organization (see box at left).
Basic structure for digital sources, for the major citation formats
Web page: Author, A. A. & Author, B. B. (Date of publication). Title of page [Format description when necessary]. Retrieved from https://www.someaddress.com/full/url/
Article from electronic journal: Author, A. A., & Author, B. B. (Date of publication). Title of article. Title of Journal, volume number, page range. Retrieved from https://www.someaddress.com/full/url/
Bibliographic style: Lastname, Firstname. “Title of Document.” Format if necessary. Print publication information if extant. Publishing organization or name of website. Publication date or access date if available. URL.
Footnote/endnote style: Lastname, Firstname, “Title of Document” (print publication information if extant), publishing organization/name of website, format if necessary, publication date or access date if available, URL.
examples (from CMOS online citation guide):
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851. http://mel.hofstra.edu/moby-dick-the-whale-proofs.html.
1. Pete Souza (@petesouza), “President Obama bids farewell to President Xi of China at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit,” Instagram photo, April 1, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/BDrmfXTtNCt/.
CMOS does not advocate using a date of access unless no publication date is available (see CMOS, 14.12).
MLA identifies nine core elements:
Author. "Title." Title of container (self contained if book), Other contributors (translators or editors), Version (edition), Number (vol. and/or no.), Publisher, Publication Date, Location (pages, paragraphs and/or URL, DOI or permalink). 2nd container’s title, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication date, Location, Date of Access (if applicable).
There are several ways to save a copy of a blog post, tweet, Facebook post, or other forms of online content.
The simplest may be to take a screenshot of the item. This is easy for something like a tweet or an Instagram post, where the content is no bigger than your screen.
Saving an entire webpage—one for which you would need to scroll down for all the content—is a little more complicated, but there are several options. (The specific sites and applications are meant as examples; we don't endorse or guarantee any of these.)