Databases, URLs, and Date of Access: Things I don’t cite with APA 6th ed.

With a new year comes a new citation guide to update. To contribute my part, I’m currently working on updating the APA handout we have for students to help navigate and present examples for proper citation formatting. Having used APA for my graduate studies, I thought this will be easy…except for some of the new changes regarding electronic resource.  Now, I keep imagining myself as Johnny Carson’s Karnak. Let me explain.

While MLA has streamlined their citations with getting rid of the URL, library name, and city of library requirements for database citations by simply providing the database name, APA now no longer requires any indication that the article is from a database. For many schools, this is less of an issue since the journals are cataloged in the OPAC separately so you can search the OPAC and determine the database from there. However, without a link resolver, you’ll need to borrow Johnny’s turban to divine which database has which journal for which coverage period. (Granted there is Ulrich’s Index, but who needs the extra work of logging in or finding a print Ulrich’s to confirm a journal’s aggregator?)

Next, for online journals, APA is now asking for DOIs (Document object identifier) instead of URLs. While I am quite familiar with the havoc changed URLs can create as pages are redesigned and reorganized, DOIs have yet to be a consistently applied standard for online articles. Although the presence of free DOI lookups like Cross Ref are available, the fact that I can struggle finding DOIs for articles listed via Google Scholar doesn’t give me much confidence that the students will find them.  For example, as a sample search in PubMed, I was typically able to find the DOI for those articles once I clicked through to the full text of the article.  However, in Google Scholar, the results are not exactly the same, as I found a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine article with a DOI nowhere to be found.  Other problems with the DOI standard is that journals have not found a standard way to identify the DOI number even when it does include the information.  For example, a 2009 article from NEJM provides the number but no label identifying it as the DOI. In JSTOR, the DOI is not listed as a number but instead as part of the stable URL; the JSTOR wiki provides the background information of the difference pieces of DOI, how to decipher the DOI from the persistent URL, etc.  So are journals going to go back and provide DOIs for those older articles or just the newer ones? Will they start identifying them as DOIs consistently across platforms?

And, finally, removing the date of access from electronic citations is another remorseful update to the APA citation format.  After the other two items, this packs less of a punch but, for long ranging research, I feel it is still important for understanding when the student was reviewing a site in comparison to when you receive their paper.  For example, for students citing a newspaper article found online and one aspect from the source paper ends up being retracted and updated on the site as such, I would have less issue with the student’s discussion and would probably take the date of access vs the date of revision issue into consideration when grading.

In short, as the web continues to evolve, so does APA’s methods of citing it.  Perhaps my general comments will prove to be a fleeting concern based on past models or perhaps they will pan out like the MacBook Air, an innovation ahead of its time but frustratingly short-sighted and problematic in current usage.  Dealing mostly with MLA citations, I’m curious what other people have been experiencing with students using the new APA citation format.  Have you had to create local or personal adjustments for your own citations? Or have the general 6th edition APA formats been a success?

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