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Citing The Net
Richard J. Sutcliffe
Professor and Assistant Dean
Computing Science and Mathematics
Trinity Western University

NOTE: This material was originally on a different server and was slightly reformatted to move it here, but the content is unaltered.


Information available on the Internet is characterized by being both interactive and transient. Authors who publish in this medium often do so because they can obtain an immediate and responsive audience. They expect quick feedback from their readers and often modify the materials accordingly. When these considerations are taken together with the very suitability of the Internet as a medium for publishing information that changes rapidly, one is brought face to face with a critical aspect of fourth civilization publishing: it is dynamic rather than static. As a result, there are a number of elements to bibliographic citations of material originating on the Internet that are different from those used in citing paper references. The purpose of this paper is to detail in a summary form what have become the normal means of referring to such elements and to suggest definitive ways in which each may be incorporated into the bibliographic apparatus.

For instance, a citation for this document would be:

Sutcliffe, Richard J. <Mailto:rsutc@twu.ca<> "Citing The Net" 1996 10 03<https://www.opundo.com/Citations.htm> (current date)

The State of the Art

Early efforts to achieve this consensus on bibliographic form reflected the uncertain and chaotic state of the Internet and were themselves often confusing or recommended the inclusion of redundant material in the citation. A number of writers (Walker, Page) have attempted to modernize and organize the art of electronic citation, with varying degrees of success. Harnack and Kleppinger note that such attempts are not without their "several noteworthy ambiguities and infelicities" and endeavor to remove these using suggestions from Li and Crane.

Efforts to produce a standard citation style are further complicated by the existence of a variety of styles for citing paper sources (MLA, CMS, APA, CBE, AMS, etc.) and the fact that the adapters of these to Internet citations have been influenced by elements of the base style to make different suggestions.

This paper follows Harnack and Kleppinger for the most part, but refines their suggestions in order to clearly distinguish a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) from a list addresses and also from command sequences for tools such as Telnet.

What Needs to be Cited

Because of its interactive and transient nature a reference to online material ought to take into account (in addition to the usual bibliographic apparatus such as author, title, publication date, publisher, place of publication, etc.) some or all of the following:

(1) how to contact the author(s),

(2) the origin or location of the work or a means by which it could be accessed,

(3) the date on which access was made for the purpose of the citation.

WARNINGS: It is not enough to state how material was first obtained. There is also an obligation on the part of a writer to be able to produce the items cited upon the demand of the reader. Since much of the information on the Internet is transient and can be withdrawn by the author or made inaccessible by the ISP (Information Services Provider) it is incumbent on authors to store copies of material needed to verify quotations and references. Moreover, since material available on the Internet or in CD-ROMs has often not been peer reviewed or perused by an editor, the quality is even more variable than that of print material. While it is always the responsibility of an author to use sources judicially, even greater care must be taken in choosing what electronic materials to cite, if any.


Some writers have recommended the inclusion of such designators as "Online:" or "Access:" or "WWW page" (with or without brackets) to indicate the electronic origin of the material, even while commenting to the effect that such clues are mere syntactic noise if a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is provided.

Page employs brackets to enclose access paths to sources and leaves access dates unenclosed. As Harnack and Kleppinger observe, this practice creates ambiguities between locations and commands, on the one hand, and between access dates and publication dates on the other. They in turn properly enclose URLs in angle brackets and informative material such as access dates in parentheses but do not unambiguously distinguish between URLs and other items such as e-mail addresses, list accessors, and commands. Neither do they distinguish commands from informative material in all cases.

Dewey and Land both say that the appropriate APA style requires all the redundant "[Online]," "Available:" and "URL" designators, does not use angle brackets for URLs and does not provide for access dates. The APA example from Li and Crane employs the "[Online]" and "Available:" designators, no angle brackets, and puts the access date in brackets rather than parentheses. Walker does not use angle brackets, does use designators such as "Internet," "WWW page", and "at URL:" and formats access dates in parentheses with additional designators such as "version current at."

Scientific citations are similar to the APA style (publication date after author's name) except that some journals put the article name or the author name in bold face. The publication date is usually not parenthesized. Among the adaptors to Internet citations, Patrias cites the Chicago Manual of Style and gives an adaptation that requires such designators as "[web page]." He also uses the designator "URL" (but inside the angle brackets in accord with RFC 1728) and puts the access date with the designator "Accessed" in brackets.

The illustrations below show a few of the many variations these suggestions produce:

Berners-Lee, T. Uniform Resource Locators (URL). [web page] 1994 Dec; <URL: ftp://ds.internic.net/rfc/rfc1738.txt>. [Accessed 16 Mar 1995].

Daniel, R. T. (1995). The history of Western music. In Britannica online: Macropaedia [Online]. Available: http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g:DocF=macro/5004/45/0.html [1995, June 14].

Pritzker, Thomas J. An Early Fragment from Central Nepal. N.D. Online. Ingress Communications. Available: http://www.ingress.com/~astanart/pritzker/pritzker.html. 8 June 1995.

Bixley, T. S. (1995) Sentient microfilaments: A tempest in a tubule. [On-line]. Available FTP: Directory:pub/harnad File: psyc.95.3.26.consciousness.11.bixley.

In order to produce a uniform citation technique across all styles, this paper adopts the following notational conventions:

(1) Informative material such as access dates is always enclosed in parentheses rather than in brackets or being left unenclosed. This is a conventional English usage for auxiliary material, comments, and informative additions to the main text.

(2) Uniform Resource Locators and e-mail addresses are enclosed in angle brackets. This usage has become universal on the Internet, and many computer programs can use an URL so enclosed to pass the location directly to a browser or other network tool for immediate access. Addresses and URLs are easily distinguishable because an address includes the "@" symbol and an URL does not. No additional designators to indicate that the material is online or that the URL is indeed an URL are needed when this is done. Likewise, all variations on the designator "Access:" are also omitted as redundant because an URL is a tool for access, and this fact is obvious when the standard syntax is employed.

(3) Commands that are intended to be entered into a program (perhaps to find documents on the Internet) are enclosed in brackets. The name of the program for which the commands are intended is given, followed by a colon, followed by the sequence in the proper order, separated by spaces. This usage distinguishes commands from locations. Such material can be copied and pasted into suitable programs. Although such usage was once common, it is now declining with the move away from telnet and gopher protocals and toward the world wide web. The only common use for such commands now is in determining the message contents to send to a listserver.


There are a number of common citation formats including the MLA, APA, CBE, AMS, and various journal styles. These differ primarily in the positioning of the items in the citation sequence, capitalization conventions, and the use of bold, italics and quotation marks. The models in this paper follow the MLA style for the most part, but are constructed in such a way as to be independent of such concerns as the positions of the new apparatus elements are in each case relative to the positions of existing elements.

Citation Details

(1) The electronic address of the author(s), if available.

This should be placed immediately after the name of the author. If there are two or more authors, the mail address of each should immediately follow the citation of the name (rather than collecting them at the end.) An address should be in a form that may be pasted into the address header of a mail message. Any formatting for the author name that may be required by the applicable style guide is not applied to the e-mail address. There are two acceptable formats, but both are placed in angle brackets:

(i) Composed as a full URL. (preferred)


Last Name, First Name. <mailto:mail address>.


Sutcliffe, Richard J. <mailto:rsutc@charity.twu.ca>.

(ii) Expressed as a bare address.


Last Name, First Name. <mail address>.


Sutcliffe, Richard J. <rsutc@charity.twu.ca>.

Although the latter is also recognizable as an address because of its syntax (see the note below), the full URL shown in the former can be automatically converted by many programs into a live link and is therefore particularly preferable for documents that will themselves be placed online.

Some styles require the author names(s) to be in bold face. If so, the mailing address is not bold face.


Pronk, Cornelis, <c.pronk@twi.tudelft.nl> and Richard J. Sutcliffe <rsutc@charity.twu.ca>.

Observe that most styles require that second and subsequent author names be in the normal order, and not reversed as is the initial one. Others require that none of the names be reversed.

NOTE: A mail address has a syntax of its own. It consists of a user name by which the recipient is denoted by a mail provider, the @ symbol, possibly the name of a machine, an organizational subdomain where that machine is located, and one or more domains at the end to permit mail to be correctly routed. The items after the @ symbol are separated by periods. A correct mail address has no spaces.

(2) The title of the work. In many cases of paper sources this is just the title of an article and nothing more needs to be cited. However, on the Internet it may be the subject line of a message or one document from a larger collection or an article in a newsgroup. In such cases, the title needs to be completed with the larger context and access information provided to the reader.

General Syntax:

MLA Title =

"name of work." (kind of work, if applicable) title or larger context, where applicable. publication date. location of work or [access commands]


APA and Scientific Title =

(publication date). "name of work." (kind of work, if applicable) title or larger context, where applicable. location of work or [access commands]

NOTE: In a citation of a paper work, the place of publication followed by a colon and then the publisher's name follows the title or larger context, but such items are usually not relevant in an electronic citation. If the item is a copy or a summary of a work also published in a paper form, the paper citation should be given first in the standard format, followed by the electronic source information, including the title if different from the paper form. This treatment obviates the need for following the electronic citation with the non-underlined designator: "Published in" (as some suggest) and then giving the journal name. It also allows for the possibility of different titles.

NOTE: There are also differences in capitalization conventions and the completeness of authors' names between the two. These are not detailed here.

(i) name of work

This may be an article title, the subject line of a message, a chapter title, or a book title. The name is followed by a period. Some styles require the title to be enclosed in quotes as shown here; others may demand bold face instead. The user should adapt to the appropriate style. Just as paper words may need to have an edition number, so also online works often have a version number. In such cases, the user should follow the title by a designator such as "10th ed." or "Rev. ed." or "Ver 3.05." as appropriate. Each of these is followed by a period.

(ii) kind of work

For other than conventional articles or parts of larger publications, some indication of the special nature may be given here. This could be any one of the following designators: "MOO", "MUD", "IRC", "E-mail", "News", "List", "Discussion", "Interview", "CD-ROM", or similar item. Such a designator is informative, so is enclosed in parentheses and in plain face. In the case of a CD-ROM, the citation is done in a manner similar to that of an article in a journal, except using "On:" rather than "In:" in front of the name of the disk (if the style requires it.)

(iii) larger context

The source may be a larger document or collection, in which case its title is cited next and is underlined, in the manner of a book title in a paper citation. This too is concluded with a period. Many styles substitute italics or boldface for underlining in book and periodical titles, and this practice is very common on the Internet itself where it may not be possible to display underlining. In this case, even article titles are often italicized.

(iv) publication date

The general bibliographic style may specify the format for dates, possibly as either: year, monthname, day as commonly used in North America, or the international numeric style yyyy mm dd (that is, a four digit year, two digit month and two digit day.) If the date is copied from an E-mail message, it may be in the form dayname, date, monthname, year. If the month or day is not known, the year suffices, but authors of online materials usually supply more than this. In APA and scientific styles, the publication date is first (before the title), and it is parenthesized.

(v) location of work

This is an URL, the standard means by which the material was accessed electronically in a browser or an FTP tool. Such URLs are always placed in angle brackets and in this form can be converted automatically into live links by many programs that can then dispatch a browser to fetch the document.

NOTE: An URL has a syntax of its own, and it is not difficult to detect one that is incorrectly formed. It consists of:

URL = <access protocol://machine locator/file locator>


- the access protocal is a designator such as "http," "file," "ftp," or "gopher,"

- the machine locator is a series of subdomains and domains separated by periods as in an e-mail address and

- the file locator is a series of directories separated by slashes and possibly ending in a specific file name.

For more information see the standard (RFC 1738). In this paper, the suggestion of the standard that the designator "URL" be included in the angle brackets is ignored as redundant.

(vi) access commands

For some software the location context may be a sequence of commands to a software tool such as Telnet or Gopher. Such commands should be given verbatim (with spaces or commas as required by the software) and not terminated by any punctuation such as periods. Such commands may conclude with a series of directories separated by slashes as in an URL. In this paper commands will be placed in brackets to distinguish them from other elements.

NOTE: Where both the URL and some other access commands are known, the URL is always preferable.

(3) The date on which the access was made for the purpose of the citation.

Since this is informative material it is enclosed in parentheses. Designators such as "Accessed:" or "Current At" are not necessary and a bare date suffices.

Style Guide examples

These are models to illustrate the rules given above in a variety of styles and circumstances.

An Article on an FTP server MLA style:

Sutcliffe, Richard J. <mailto:rsutc@charity.twu.ca>. Standard Generic Modula-2 (Document ISO/IEC/JTC1/SC22/WG13 D235) 1996 07 12 <ftp://FTP.twu.ca/pub/modula2/WG13/ca101.GenericModula2CD> (1996 09 16)

An Article on an FTP server APA/Scientific style:

Miikkulainen, R. "Computational Constraints and the Rold of Scripts in Story Understanding". (Discussion) PSYCOLOQUY 6(3) Friday 17 March 1995. <>. (1996 09 16)

A Book also available on a Web Server MLA style:

Sutcliffe, Richard J. <mailto:rsutc@charity.twu.ca>. Modula-2: Abstractions for Data and Programming Structures (Using ISO-Standard Modula-2) Mt. Lehman: Arjay Enterprises 1996. <http://www.twu.ca/rsbook/Welcome.html> (1996 09 16)

An anonymous www page:

Missions Info Net <http://labmac13/mission_net/World.HTML> (1996 09 17)

A published article also accessible online (different title), a scientific style:

Yamamoto et al (1990) "Human cDNA" Nature 345:229-233 "gb:j05175 gb:s44054 (allele) sw:p16442 (bgat_human)." <http://expasy.hcuge.ch/cgi-bin/get-sprot-entry?P16442> (1996 09 17)

An Article on a CD-ROM (No author, so sorted by article title; no URLs, MLA style.):

"Developer CD WWW Page.html". On: System Software (CD-ROM) Developer CD Series. Cupertino: Apple Computer Corporation October 1996

Computing Scientists use more of an MLA style

(Their journals may reverse all the names or none of them.)

Rossi, G., D., Schwabe, C.J.P. de Lucena, D.D. Cowan, "An Object-Oriented Model for Designing the Human-Computer Interface of Hypermedia Applications", Proceedings of the International Workshop on Hypermedia Design (IWHD'95). Springer Verlag Workshops in Computing Series. (forthcoming) <ftp://ftp.inf.puc-rio.br/pub/docs/techreports/95_07_rossi.ps.gz> (1996 09 18)

Schwabe, D. and G. Rossi. "The Object Oriented Hypermedia Design Model", Comm. of the ACM Vol. 38, #8, Aug. 1995. <http://irss.njit.edu:5080/cgi-bin/bin/option.csh?sidebars/schwabe.html> (1996 09 18)

A published article also now online in a book, MLA style:

Sutcliffe, Richard J. <mailto:rsutc@twu.ca> "The Northern Spy--Nellie and The Pirates, Call A.P.P.L.E." September 1983: 55-59 <file:///RSFiles/Books/Modula%20book/M2.3rdEdition/html/Ch6/Ch6i.html> In: Modula-2: Abstractions for Data and Programming Structures (Using ISO-Standard Modula-2) Mt. Lehman: Arjay Enterprises 1996. <http://www.twu.ca/rsbook/Welcome.html> (1996 09 16)

An e-mail message:

Boyd, Scott T. <scott@qks.com> (E-mail) Wed, 24 Apr 1996 "Re: Smalltalk"

A newsgroup message:

Gray, Andrew. <mailto:agray@commerce.otago.ac.nz> (News) "OO languages, methodologies, and metrics (includes text version)." Sun, 15 Sep 1996 23:01:24 GMT In: comp.lang.modula-2 (1996 09 17)

A message in a list with the address to which list mail is sent:

McElhearn, Kirk . <mailto:kirk@lenet.fr> (List) "Re: Key commands are partially lost on updating" Thu, 26 Sep 96 13:36:13 +0200. In: betateam-digest Tuesday, October 1, 1996 #92 <Mailto:betateam@nisus-soft.com>

An Article or file available from a listserver:

In these examples there is no author, so the citation is by document name. The listserv address is given as an URL; the rest is the command that goes into the body of the message. In the second case, the message body is empty.

Apple Internet Announcements Digest. Cupertino, CA: Apple Computer Corporation, April 27 1994 [GET apple-internet-announce/digests 94Apr27] (1996 08 10)

Info about the Semper.fi mailing list. Cupertino, CA: Apple Computer Corporation, August 8, 1996 <mailto:daemon@solutions.apple.com> (1996 10 03)

A newsgroup message in a footnote or endnote, CMS style:

This style requires one to parenthesize publication information and insert comma and page number(s) before last period if relevant. However, Internet documents are often unpaged, so the only difference from MLA bibliographic style would be to parenthesize the date of publication, attach the footnote number, indent the first line, and put the first author's name in normal order.

Christopher G. Kolar <mailto: ckolar@mail.aocn.aurora.edu> (News) "Re: Antivirus Software for OLD Machines" (Monday Sept. 30, 1996 09:05) In: comp.edu (1996 10 01)

An online book in a footnote or endnote, CMS style:

A section number could substitute for a page number, but if so, an abbreviation should be used.

Richard J. Sutcliffe<mailto:rsutc@charity.twu.ca>. Standard Generic Modula-2 (Document ISO/IEC/JTC1/SC22/WG13 D235 1996 07 12): Sec. 6.1.1 <ftp://FTP.twu.ca/pub/modula2/WG13/ca101.GenericModula2CD> (1996 09 16)

A newsgroup FAQ stored at an archive site:

The name of the newsgroup is treated like the name of a periodical.

Sutcliffe, Richard J. <mailto: rsutc@twu.ca> (News) "Modula-2 Frequently Asked Questions" (Version 2.5) 1996 09 06. FAQ of: comp.lang.modula-2 <ftp://FTP.twu.ca/pub/modula2/m2faq.html> (1996 09 17)


These suggestions provide for a uniform method of adding the necessary electronic citation apparatus to an existing bibliographic style, regardless of the specific style elements and ordering. It is not difficult to construct more complex citations from the examples given as long as these rules are followed:

- the name of an author, editor, reviewer, etc. may be followed by an e-mail address in angle brackets,

- the URL of a file follows the title and is in angle brackets,

- commands to get a file are bracketed, and may include a listserver address,

- other such as access dates and source types is parenthesized.


American Psychological Association (APA) Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed.). Washington, D. C. 1994

Berners-Lee, T. L. Masinter, & M. McCahill. "Uniform Resource Locators (RFC 1738)" Dec 1994; <ftp://ds.internic.net/rfc/rfc1738.txt>.(16 Sept 1996).

The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Council of Biology Editors, ed. Scientific Style and Format: the CBE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 6th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Dewey , Russ. <mailto:rdewey@gasou.edu> "APA Publication Manual Crib Sheet" 1996 08 05 <http://www.gasou.edu/psychweb/tipsheet/apacrib.htm> (1996 09 10)

Dodd, Sue A. "Bibliographic References for Computer Files in the Social Sciences: A Discussion Paper." <gopher://info.monash.edu.au:70/00/handy/cites> Rev. May 1990. In: IASSIST Quarterly 14, 2(1990):14-17.

Harnack, Andrew & Kleppinger, Gene. "Beyond the MLA Handbook: Documenting Sources on the Internet." <http://www.csc.eku.edu/honors/beyond-mla> (1996 08 11)

George H. Hoemann, "Electronic Style--Elements of Citation" <http://funnelweb.utcc.utk.edu/~hoemann/elements.html>. In Electronic Style...the Final Frontier 1995, <http://funnelweb.utcc.utk.edu~hoemann/style.html> (1996 09 10)

Land, T. [a.k.a Beads] "Web Extension to American Psychological Association Style (WEAPAS)" (Rev. 1.2.4) <http://www.nyu.edu/pages/psychology/WEAPAS/> (1996 09 09)

Li, Xia <mailto:xli@moose.uvm.edu> and Nancy Crane <mailto:ncrane@moose.uvm.edu> Bibliographic Formats for Citing Electronic Information May 20, 1996 <http://www.uvm.edu/~xli/reference/estyles.html> (1996 09 16)

---. Electronic Styles: A Handbook for Citing Electronic Information (Revised edition). Medford, NJ: 1996

Page, Melvin E. "A Brief Citation Guide for Internet Sources in History and the Humanities." Ver. 2.1, 20 Feb. 1996. <gopher://h-net.msu.edu/00/lists/H-AFRICA/internet-cit> (1996 09 11).

Patrias K. National Library of Medicine Recommended Formats For Bibliographic Citation. Bethesda MD: NIH, 1991.

Quinion, M."Citing online sources. World Wide Words: Michael Quinion on Aspects of English" 1996, March 10.<http://clever.net/quinion/words/citation.htm> (1996 09 16)

Wainwright, M. "Citation Style For Internet Sources." 12 February 1996. <http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/users/maw13/citation.html> (1996 09 16)

Walker, Janice R. "MLA-Style Citations of Electronic Sources." Ver. 1.0, Rev. Apr. 1995. <http://www.cas.usf.edu/english/walker/mla.html> (7 Feb. 1996).

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