APA: More than a Citation Style

By January 15, 2018Writing about Writing

“To be admitted to membership of a particular sector of the academic profession involves not only a sufficient level of technical proficiency in one’s intellectual trade, but also a proper measure of loyalty to one’s collegial group and of adherence to its norms. An appreciation of how an individual is inducted into the disciplinary culture is important to the understanding of that culture” — Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001, p. 47)

I came across this quote while reading “Academic Disciplines,” a chapter from Becher and Trowler’s book Academic Tribes and Territories, for my WRD 500 Proseminar graduate class, the first course that WRD (Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse) graduate students take when they begin the program. The chapter describes how students and scholars face intellectual, social, and cultural requirements when they enter an academic discourse. A student or scholar must learn how to navigate a certain academic field in order to effectively be “inducted” into the discipline. One of the most salient ways for people to show their disciplinary knowledge is through their writing.

I realized when students come into the writing center with academic papers, they are not only completing an assignment; through those papers, they are signaling their successful entry into an academic discipline. They demonstrate this entry through style, word choice, format, and methods, among other aspects of their writing. Therefore, exactly how students use writing to show their understanding of a disciplinary culture is relevant and consequential to a student’s academic and professional future. One way for students in the social sciences to enter their chosen disciplines with their writing is through their use of APA style.

APA Style as a Disciplinary Move

The proper use of a discipline’s citation style, like APA, is one way for students, as emerging scholars, to abide by the patterns of an academic discipline. APA becomes a method not only through which students “provide resources that build on or augment their own expertise,” like the UCWbL core practice, but also show their proper understanding of an academic discipline.

Charles Bazerman, in “Codifying the Social Scientific Style: The APA Publication Manual as a Behaviorist Rhetoric,” supports the claim that the proper use of APA style permits a student’s passage into their academic discipline. Bazerman asserts that the APA Publication Manual “offers a programmatically correct way to discuss the phenomena under study; moreover, it stabilizes the roles, relationships, goals, and activity of individuals within the research community in ways consistent with the community’s beliefs about human behavior” (1988, p. 275). When students write and cite in ways consistent with the prolific scholars of the field, they signal their understanding of how to enter that field.

How Citations Influence Academic Writing

As I explored how APA style could influence how students write, I found an article called “The Language of Psychology: APA Style as Epistemology” by Robert Madigan, Susan Johnson, and Patricia Linton. They concluded, “APA style is not just a collection of arbitrary stylistic conventions, but also encapsulates the core values and epistemology of the discipline” (1995, p. 428). APA style influences how students write by regulating how, where, and why they use APA citations to “provide resources that build on or augment their own expertise.”

A qualitative data analysis by Margin A. Safer and Rong Tang, presented in “The Psychology of Referencing in Psychology Journal Articles” further found that “the location of a cited reference predicted the author’s rated importance of that reference to the study” (2009, p. 52). In this way, the conventions of APA style influence how and where students use citations in their academic writing per the expectations of the academic discipline.

What this Means for Peer Writing Tutors

This understanding has the potential to influence how peer writing tutors think about working with writers on citations. When student writers come into the writing center with academic papers in their chosen fields, they are in the process of entering academic discourses. It follows, then, that one of our roles as peer writing tutors is to help students successfully enter their chosen academic fields and understand the importance of abiding by the field’s citation style. One tangible way to do this is to make sure they make the moves of the field, which includes effectively understanding and using that field’s typical citation style. Peer writing tutors can acknowledge and recognize how students are using citations, since the location of a citation in an APA-style paper may indicate its significance to the student writer. Based on this research, peer writing tutors might think about citations in general as important ways for students, in their academic writing, to “provide resources that build on or augment their own expertise.”


American Psychological Association. (2014). Why You Must Stand Up for Psychological Science. YouTube.

Bazerman, Charles. (1988). Codifying the Social Scientific Style: The APA Publication Manual as a Behaviorist Rhetoric. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and  Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Becher, T. & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Disciplines. Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Open University Press.

Madigan, R., Johnson, S. & Linton P. (1995). The Language of Psychology: APA Style as Epistemology. American Psychologist, 50(6), 428-436.

Safer, M.A. & Tang, R. (2009). The Psychology of Referencing in Psychology Journal Articles. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(1), 51-53.