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Documenting Articles Retrieved Online According to APA Guidelines: A Brief Overview of When and How to Cite Using DOIs or URLs


article retrieved onlineFebruary, 2010. When writing the reference section of a dissertation, formatting can get complicated. The APA style manual has many specific formatting guidelines that are there to help clarify what type of source is being referenced and from where it came. As more and more peer-reviewed articles have gone online, fewer and fewer dissertation students and professionals are accessing hard copy versions of articles. The following has been written to help you understand how and when to use the digital object identifier (DOI) in your references. It has also been written to explain how to reference a source when there is no DOI available.

The digital object identifier

The American Psychological Association (APA) recently came out with the sixth edition of their widely used publication manual. One important change made concerns how articles retrieved online are documented in the reference sections of papers, dissertations, and theses. This change centers on what’s called a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). According to the APA, “A DOI is unique alphanumeric string assigned by a registration agency (the International DOI Foundation) to identify content and provide a persistent link to its location on the Internet” (p. 189). Online sources and databases come and go or change. The DOI provides a stable way to identify an article regardless the particular online venue where a version of the article is found.
This number is typically located on the first page of an article and begins with the number 10 (e.g. “DOI 10.1108/09524810410530601”). It is often set in smaller type and grouped with other publication information, sometimes in an inconspicuous place like a lower or upper corner of the first page of an article. You can also find it on the landing page.

Within the APA’s discussion of the purpose of the DOI, is a very important rule:

"When a DOI is used, no further retrieval information is needed to identify or locate the content" (p. 191).
That means you don’t need URL information if you have the DOI.

But what if the article doesn’t appear to have a DOI?

It would be nice if every article had a DOI, but that is simply not the case. There are many articles out there, particularly older ones, that don’t have these identifiers. In order to find out if an article has a DOI and what that number is, you can go to CrossRef. They have a search function for DOIs. In the case the article does not have a DOI, "provide the home page URL of the journal or the book report publisher" (APA, 2010, p. 191). The best way to do this is to enter the full name of the of the journal and the word "homepage."

Word to the wise, though. Many universities have their own rules for referencing online sources in regard to writing a dissertation (even in the case they are supposedly going by APA rules!). Instead of using the homepage, they will want citation of the database rather than the homepage. For example, instead of citing the journal homepage, they will want something like, "Retrieved from ProQuest ABI/INFORM global." Still, APA does not recommend this, for as they state, “In general, it is not necessary to include data base information” (p. 192). Also, APA does does not require retrieval dates in the reference.

Two examples:

Here are two citations that were retrieved online. In the first example, the DOI was available. In the second, the DOI wasn’t. The relevant differences occur after indicating the journal page numbers.

Yammarino, F. J., Atwater, L. E., and Spangler, W. D. (2004). Transformational leadership
       and team performance. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 17(2), 177-193.
       doi: 10.1108/09534810410530601

Kim, S. (2002). Participative management and job satisfaction: Lessons for management
       leadership. Public Administration Review, 62(2), 2331-241.

As for the basics of online citation, that about covers it. For more specific questions about the topic, please check out the new APA manual or their official website.  More information about the DOI system can be located here. Above all, check with your dissertation advisor or instructor or examine the reference section of a recent dissertation from your department.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American
       Psychological Association
(6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.