The Lowdown on Which Academic Style Guide to Use

This guide provides an overview of the 4 common guides for humanities and social sciences: MLA, APA, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Oxford.
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Accurately citing your work and using uniform punctuation and stylistic choices remains crucial to the academic research and writing process. But many disciplines, as well as interdisciplinary scholarship, use one of several academic style guides. Each guide provides details for how to reference sources, style bibliographies, and address common (and some uncommon) elements of writing, including grammar, punctuation, abbreviations, and formatting.

If you’re writing a research paper for a class or a particular journal, they will usually tell you which style manual they require. But if you are working on a piece to submit or publish and it is up to you to decide, you will want to consider which one is best for your aims. If you are working on your second book (or beyond), which reaches farther afield from your primary discipline, you will want to consider whether choosing a different citation style guide is in order.

Here we provide a shorthand overview covering four common guides for humanities and social sciences: The Modern Language Association guide (MLA), The American Psychology Association guide (APA), The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), and The University of Oxford Style Guide (Oxford).

Reasons to think about which guide to use include how the guide’s citation style will impact readers. 

  • Is your intended audience social scientists who are used to reading long in-text citations? Or are you writing for the general public? (If the latter, consider CMoS.) 
  • Are you looking to speak to an audience (or journal) beyond your primary field? For instance, are you a sociologist who is writing about the impact of video games on students? Are you looking to break into an interdisciplinary journal or broaden your readership? (If so, in both cases, you might consider ditching the APA for MLA or CMoS.) 
  • Conversely, are you a political historian looking to publish your current project in a political science journal? (Then consider forfeiting your usual reliance on CMoS for APA.) 
  • Looking to submit to UK journals? Why Oxford, of course.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Arts, humanities, and some social science fields use CMoS, or Chicago style. Art history and history are among its most loyal utilizers. Since people in various fields also use MLA, APA, and Oxford, this does not in itself ensure it is the right style guide for your current or next project.

But jumping right to the pros and cons of CMoS might help:

Pro: Readability/aesthetics

Since CMoS uses footnotes and not in-text citations, it allows for an aesthetically pleasing, reader-friendly format. This is probably why it is the preferred citation guide for many academic fields and most non-academic publishers of fiction and non-fiction.

Con: Complicated

Of the style guides, CMoS is often mentioned as the most complex. While not as old as Oxford, CMoS has been around for well over a hundred years with regular updates, so density of information factors into this complexity. It also requires all bibliographic information in both the footnotes and the bibliography. That adds to the text and additionally the order is different in both. Students hate this style guide for that reason. However, the CMoS provides a short guide with examples that frankly shouldn’t scare anyone off of this tried and true citation guide.

MLA

Academic writers in literature and humanities disciplines often use MLA as well as CMoS. While the MLA handbook is standard for academics in English, comparative literature, and language departments, fields ranging from history, legal studies, area studies, and more find reason to use it as well. Commonly, MLA is the assigned citation style for college classes in various fields.

Pro: Helpful guide for citing media and unusual sources

While all guides have ample online sources for following citation and style guidance, the MLA’s is especially helpful with common and challenging citation issues. Use the search function or glance at their FAQ. Some examples from the MLA FAQ include: “How do I cite a movie poster?” and “How do I cite a virtual poetry reading?” If you’re agnostic between MLA and CMoS for a humanities project, but you plan to cite numerous multimedia elements from Youtube to podcasts, MLA makes it easy for you. (But you can still cite these with any guide.)

Con/Pro: In-text citations

MLA opts for straightforward in-text citations with page numbers. While this may be less reader friendly than the clean aesthetic of CMoS footnotes, there is also a benefit. You may find this system preferable if you want to emphasize your sources and ensure they are not missed. Reading through a paper with footnotes (with the exception of editors or hardcore academics), one may skip many or all of the citations on the first read. MLA’s simple, in-text author and page number provides immediate connection for readers about whose work you are citing each time.

APA

The APA style guide is primarily utilized in social sciences, including psychology, sociology, education, and political science. However, if you work in other fields, such as history, art, or languages, and conduct human research in the form of interviews or oral histories, the APA may be a helpful choice. And again, if publishing your research in social science journals is on your radar, this is another reason to choose it. 

Pro: Emphasis on inclusivity, accessibility, and bias-free language

While each style guide addresses issues of inclusive language, the APA pays more extensive attention to this as a primary part of its guide. Accessibility of its guide and an emphasis on bias-free language take center stage on APA’s main page. APA has tended to be more adamant in addressing inclusive language terms, such as endorsing singular they/them pronouns, than has CMoS or MLA (which included those as options, rather than endorsing their use for persons whose gender identity is unknown). However, you always have the option of using the most inclusive language as you see fit while employing the citation norms of any guide.

Con: Cumbersome in-text citations

APA utilizes author-and-date in-text citations. Especially when citing other social science research, this can be a visual inundation. But power to the social scientists who don’t bat an eyelash at a multiple line in-text parenthetical citation.

Oxford

The Oxford style guide ostensibly provides an official style guide and branding kit for staff at the University of Oxford. But its use extends well beyond that to many UK journals and publishing houses. If you want to submit to UK journals ranging from The Journal of Legal Anthropology to The Journal of Jewish Studies, follow the citation, spelling, and writing tips provided by the Oxford academic style guide. 

While each guide provides some writing tips and a general preference for avoiding excessive jargon, Oxford’s pithy aim seems brilliantly apt (and also very British): “If there are multiple (correct) ways of doing something, choose the one which uses the least space and the least ink.” 

Bottom Line

This quick guide should help you think about which academic style guide to use for your next project. It also, hopefully, will give you the confidence to switch it up for the sake of expanding your work to new audiences or outlets. But the writing part? Well, you’ll have to do that yourself. But getting professional editing or consulting help in the process can help shorten the time from research to publication. Less time and less ink. #WritingGoals.

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About the author

Carolee Klimchock has wrestled with many different citation styles in her work as a scholar and history instructor. A nineteenth-century cultural historian, she earned her PhD in American studies at Yale. She has tried to remain agnostic on style guides but often attempted to force her students at Ramapo College and the University of Texas at Dallas to use CMoS, with mixed results. As a footnote, she currently works as a freelance writer.

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