Citing ebooks in MLA & APA

Date March 15, 2011

Many of today’s high school students are moving toward reading their books on “e-readers” or mobile devices (like their phones and itouches). There are many advantages (and still some disadvantages). While people are stratified on the notion of mobile devices in high school classrooms, for those of us who permit them to read on them run into a new problem: citing.

A highschool colleague presented a question to me recently: How do you cite a page number from an ebook? I had an idea of how to go about doing this but I figured I would ask my friend and colleague who has written one of my favorite research and citation guides, The Wadsworth Guide to Research.

The new MLA (2009) and APA (2010) both require the “type” of source to be listed in the bibliography/reference section. In the case of the ebook, you cannot put “Print” nor can you put “Web”. The web is a platform not a type of source. An ebook is not printed. (Does that make sense?)

So after spending sometime doing research and speaking to the “experts”, we realize the research cannot list a page number for an ebook, but he or she should make a concerted effort to specify where the quote appears. This should be done through chapter number in the parenthetical citation and not needed in the citation section. As more and more people asked the question above, Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association agreed, “The lack of page numbers is disconcerting”. MLA recommends that ebooks are identified the same as digital files like Microsoft documents, which can include chapters and paragraph count, while Chicago (2010) style recommends the user includes section titles if they’re available.

Below are examples of both APA and MLA answering this question.
In text citations are IDENTICAL for both for ebooks. For example:

Coupland’s assertion about the contemporary early twenty-something emerges through the description of Karen’s friends where they “have become who they’ve become by default. Their dreams are forgotten, or were never formulated to begin with” (Coupland ch. 23 para 7).

Coupland, Douglas. Girlfriend in a Coma. New York: ReganBooks, 1998. Digital.

Coupland, D. (1998). Girlfriend in a Coma. [Digital]. New York: ReganBooks.

As MLA, APA, and Chicago has started addressing e-books, Amazon has now added “location numbers” to their Kindle books. I have personally measured all e-books I’ve read these last two years by percentage complete. It doesn’t matter how large or small I set the font but the percentage is accurate albeit it’s not as accurate as chapter numbers. Books have static chapters while page numbers, as Charlie Sorrel pointed out in, have always changed depending on the edition of the book cited. In many ways, a digital citation is more accurate that a print citation. There is an initiative to build a standard Open Bookmark that creates a consistent measure of e-books.

A page number is a location reference, so why not use a more universal reference rather than something based on edition or version? The Associations need to push the publishing industry to set universal location markers in digital books that are cross format and cross platform.

To demonstrate the confusion teachers and students alike feel when it comes this discussion, here are two more examples of citing e-books. While I don’t necessarily agree with online citation aggregators, the student flock to them. Both of these examples come from Noodletools, which is one of the more popular tools for my students. As you can see, the formatting differs from the formatting above.

(APA 6th ed.) How do I cite an e-book on a device like a Kindle, Nook, or iPad?

(MLA 7th ed.) How do I cite an e-book on a device like a Kindle, Nook, or iPad?

I add another example here not to confuse us but to show that even though there’s still some confusion on how to cite digital copy, teachers, schools, and our associations have begun the discussion.

Adventures in lens flares
(CC) image posted to Flickr by Torley.