Citing Electronic Sources

Do not assume the information you find on the Internet is common knowledge. Everything on the Internet has been written by someone and may need to be cited.

Simply including a URL is not enough.

Even if there is no visible author, there is other information that should be included in the citation. Consult your citation style guide on how to cite electronic sources, including social media posts.

Different disciplines and published journals use different citation styles. If you are unsure which to use, check with your instructor or research supervisor. The Online Writing Lab (OWL) of Purdue University provides useful examples of citing electronic sources for each style:

Citations of electronic sources often require the URL or the name of the database from which you retrieved the information. Always keep the URL for your own records so you can refer back to it.

Citing Creative Commons-licensed Content

When you use content made available under a Creative Commons license, follow the terms of the specific Creative Commons license attached to the content.  All Creative Commons licenses require that you cite the creator of the content. 

In addition to giving credit to the creator, you should cite the content as any other online source. Provide as much information as possible and adapt the citation entry to the style you are using.  Also include the URL to the Creative Commons license at http://creativecommons.org/.

Wikipedia is Not a Reliable Academic Source

Many of us use Wikipedia as a source of information when we want a quick explanation of something.  However, Wikipedia or other wikis, collaborative information sites contributed to by a variety of people, are not considered reliable sources for academic citation, and you should not use them as sources in an academic paper.

The bibliography published at the end of the Wikipedia entry may point you to potential sources. However, do not assume that these sources are reliable – use the same criteria to judge them as you would any other source. Do not consider the Wikipedia bibliography as a replacement for your own research.


Evaluating Electronic Sources:  Is the Information Reliable?

Articles from online publications and databases often provide an author’s name and credentials so that you can evaluate the author’s reliability as a source. However, the reality is that anyone can put up a website, create a Facebook page, or post via the multitude of other social media tools.

Before you take information from a source you have found on the Internet, assess its reliability by looking for the following:

  • Name of the author:
 Is the author a recognized authority? Or is the author a student who has posted his or her paper online?


If the person is not a qualified expert, you should not use the information.

  • Name of the sponsoring institution:


Is the sponsoring institution a name that you recognize as a reliable, unbiased source of information?  For example, the World Health Organization, The United Nations, The American Medical Association.


If you cannot locate this information or you are not sure of the reliability of the institution, do not use the information.

  • Date of posting:


Has the website been recently updated? Is the information current?  


The relevance of the information can be affected by timeliness of the post. Based on your topic, you need to evaluate if timeliness is critical.

Some electronic sources have no clear author. This may include:

  • Government websites and social media

  • University, institutional or organizational websites and social media

When using sources without a clear author, always look for the name of the sponsoring institution and investigate its reliability.  If you cannot locate this information or you are not sure of the reliability of the institution, do not use the information.


Authenticity of Social Media Posts  

In evaluating social media posts, first follow the guidelines outlined above.

In addition, the authenticity of the author should also be assessed.  Outright imposters, as well as parody accounts, have proliferated within social media networks.  To assess the authenticity:

  • Some social media tools, such as Twitter, perform their own verification testing, which can be helpful in identifying the “true” account of an individual.

  • A Twitter name is not always indicative of the author’s true identity. Verified Twitter accounts are marked with a blue check badge next to the name. This indicates that Twitter has verified the identity of the individuals of these accounts. For example:

President Obama uses Twitter to keep citizens informed on current issues. "Barack Obama @BarackObama" is President Obama's verified Twitter account whereas "Barack Obama @theUSpresident" is a parody account.

  • Look at the quality of the previous posts to see if the content is consistent with who the author says s/he is.
Read any associated bio to see what is said about the individual’s identity, beyond just the name. Does the bio link to his/her website, book site or blog? Can you verify the author’s credentials on LinkedIn or similar sites?
 


If you are in doubt of the person’s true identity, do not use the source.

  • When you do cite a social media source, cite it by its handle or vanity URL, not by the name it professes. This ensures you are accurately reflecting your source to the reader.

For example, if you found the Twitter feed @cola78456 listed as Coca Cola Company and your assessment led you to believe it was authentic, you would cite the source as:



“@cola78456 says…”  not “Coca Cola Company on Twitter says…”

In some cases, you may want to quote social media posts by “everyday people” to help exemplify a viewpoint or trend. In this case, the challenge is not assessing the authenticity of the author, but determining if the person is real and not an automated web “bot.” To assess if the author is real:

  • Check the quality of previous posts.  Bots tend to post of spam and re-post content of others.

  • Consider the tone of the posts.  Bots typically post a statement and a link.  Opinions and sentiments usually come from a real person, not a bot.

  • If the social media account is being curated, it is more likely a legitimate person.

If you are in doubt whether a social media post is from a person or bot, do not use the source.