Tips for Using APA Style in Research Papers

Whether you’ve recently decided to change careers and go back to school or you’re a teacher earning a master’s degree in education, you will be writing research papers. Your instructors will evaluate your work based on how well you write, how meticulously you research subjects, and whether you use proper style rules.

The function of a style manual is to establish rules on everything from the use of serial commas and capitalization in headlines to citing sources and formatting pages. These rules help students and scholars write consistently without having to pause every time they’re stumped by a style question.

Tips for using APA style

The preferred manual within the education realm and among behavioral science professionals is published by the American Psychological Association (APA). Once you learn some basic rules from the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, you’ll be citing quotations, references, and sources like a pro.

Here’s a checklist that addresses some of the most common questions about grammar, punctuation, references, and citations. It is important to own a copy of the APA style guide or have full access to it online because APA rules vary for citing different types of sources.

What is plagiarism, and how do I avoid it?

“Do wrong to none” — Never use text from books or online sources without fully crediting the source in accordance with APA citation rules. When in doubt, paraphrase. Rephrase the quotation in your own words and voice. When you paraphrase a credible source, include an attribution to the person or entity from which you are quoting.

How do I list references?

“Whether ‘tis nobler” — When you attribute a quotation from a source within the text, you are citing a resource. When you include your sources at the end of a writing assignment, you are providing a list of references. APA style emphasizes author(s) first, followed by publication date, title, and source (book, magazine article, website, etc.) volume and issue (in parentheses), and page number(s). Examples:

  • Citation: Fred Guterl (2014) points out in Scientific American that diversity “goes to the heart of how to do research and innovation effectively.”
  • Reference: Guterl, F. (2014, October), The inclusion equation. Scientific American, 311(4), 38–40.

How do I credit citations from online sources?

“Brevity is the soul of wit” — When citing or quoting online material, follow the rules for printed sources and include the URL in your reference listing. It is not necessary to incorporate the link in the article if you include it in your references, unless your instructor requests that you do so. Here is an example of a listing for an online attribution:

  • Reference: Guterl, F. (2014, October), The inclusion equation. Scientific American, 311(4), 38–40. Retrieved from

How do I use quotes from sources?

“Words, words, mere words” — Crediting sources is vital to gaining credibility as a writer and establishing integrity with the reader. Double-check your quotes and references for the spelling of names and titles, as well as punctuation of headlines and book titles. Generally, you should limit quoted matter to 200 words or less. Examples:

  • Partial quotation: Guterl (2014) states in his article that diversity is intended to be inclusive and “not just those in privileged positions.”
  • Full quotation: “The heart of the matter is that proper sanitation infrastructure is beneficial to everyone,” said Alex Smith (2014) of Waste Management Inc.

How do I list numbers, symbols, and equations?

“Speak to a few” — The use of numbers in writing is increasingly prevalent in today’s metrics-driven universe. Here are some APA rules on how to include numbers in text:

  • Spell out one through nine and use numerals for 10 and above. Use numerals for ages, specific times, dates, money with symbols, statistics, math equations, scores, weights and measurements.

What are some important rules for proper punctuation?

“Ignorance is the curse” — Punctuation covers a lot of territory; and different style guides have different rules for the use of commas and other punctuation. In general, use the following APA guidelines:

  • Serial commas: Use a comma in a series of three or more items.
    • He brought his bat and ball to practice.
    • She brought her mitt, bat, and ball to practice.
  • Periods: Do not use periods after state abbreviations like OH and TX or with acronyms such as REM and GOP. Use only one space after periods between sentences.
  • Colons and dashes: Use colons to set up an introductory clause or to illustrate a separate thought; use dashes to show an abrupt change in a sentence.
    • He wrote down three things to bring: his glove, bat, and ball.
    • She realized — after she arrived — that her cap was missing.
  • Quotation marks: Use quotation marks sparingly to emphasize colloquial phrases, slang, or irony. When quoting sources place commas, periods, and question marks inside the quotation marks.
    • He was quick with a quip, like a slugger with a “shtick.”
    • “I’m not late,” she said. Then she asked, “Are you?”

How should I capitalize words in titles and headings?

“What’s in a name” — Always capitalize names and major words in titles but do not capitalize conjunctions like but, or, and, for in headings. For references, only capitalize the first word, names and proper nouns, like cities and countries.

  • Title: When Harry Met Sally at the Museum in New York
  • Reference: Jones, T. (2014, December), When Harry met Sally at the museum in New York. Circle Star Playhouse, 1(12), 4–30.

The quotations that precede each tip are from “William Shakespeare Quotes.”

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