Copyediting basics: Dealing with citations

Copyediting basics: Dealing with citations

October 7, 2021 By Erin Brenner Resources

One of the most challenging tasks of copyediting is dealing with citations. Precision and correctness are important but the work itself is often mechanical and tedious.


The purpose of a citation is to enable the reader to identify the sources of all information presented in the text that is not the author’s.

If a manuscript has only a few citations, they can be called out in text like this:

Fatigue may be a predictor of hospitalizations in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to “Fatigue in COPD: Association with Functional Status and Hospitalizations,” a study published in the June 14, 2012, online version of the European Respiratory Journal.

Or, if the manuscript will be published electronically, like this:

Fatigue may be a predictor of hospitalizations in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to “Fatigue in COPD: Association with Functional Status and Hospitalizations.

Otherwise, citations need to be collected in a documentation system. The three most popular are author-date, notes and bibliography, and numbered references.


With the author-date system, your author cites the source author’s surname and the source’s publication year in the sentence containing the cited material. Location information, such as page number, may be included as necessary.

Full citation information is then listed in the References section at the back of the work, sometimes called “Works Cited” or a variation of “References.” References are organized by author last name, publication date, and title.

The author-date system is used frequently in the sciences and social sciences. APA and MLA call for it primarily, and Chicago lists it as a choice.


With the notes-and-bibliography system, citations are placed in footnotes or endnotes, with full or partial publication information. The superscripted numbers corresponding with the note are placed at the end of the sentence or clause that contains the cited material. Two or more references can generally be combined in one note, if required.

Whether to use footnotes and/or endnotes, and with full or partial citations, is usually up to the publisher and the author, although the copyeditor may weigh in. If only partial citations are given, a bibliography must be used as well. If full citations are given, it’s again up to the publisher and author to decide whether to use a bibliography.

Note that a bibliography can include sources consulted but not referred to in the manuscript, while a reference list is restricted to items referenced in the manuscript. The bibliography should be alphabetized by author and title.

This system is commonly used in the humanities and is one of Chicago’s two systems.


With the numbered-reference system, superscripted numbers corresponding with the citation are placed at the end of the sentence or clause with the cited material, as in the notes-and-bibliography system. Here, though, it’s one citation per number.

That’s because the numbers correspond to entries in the bibliography and the number is assigned to one source. Every time that source is cited in the main text, its citation entry number is used. This could mean several citation numbers in a row for one sentence.

The bibliography entries can be organized by order of appearance in the main text or alphabetical by author.

For example, the first citation in the manuscript is for Garner’s Modern American Usage and the bibliography is ordered by appearance. The Garner’s entry, then, is number one, and every time Garner’s is referenced in the main text, a superscripted 1 will be used to denote the citation.

This system is common in science, particularly medicine, and is AMA’s system of choice.


No matter which style manual’s citation style the manuscript uses—if it follows one at all—citations require the same basic information:

The idea is to give the reader the information necessary to find the source material, if they so desire. Not every source will have all the above information. For example, if the material isn’t published online, whether or not it’s published in print, there will be no URL or DOI to list.

Increasingly, the publisher location is unnecessary, because the publisher can be found and contacted online. In fact, AMA is dropping this requirement for the upcoming 11th edition. Work with the publisher to determine if you should spend time looking for missing location information.


Academic publications and nonfiction books tend to follow one of the major documentation systems. But other publications are less rigorous in their documentation style. They follow their own systems, a loose interpretation of one of the above systems, or—most frustrating for copyeditors—no system at all. Think business white papers and reports, NGO reports, and the like.

I’ve spent most of my career dealing with citations from these types of publications. On the up side, industry publications tend to be shorter and have fewer citations. However, they tend to cite newer types of sources for which our major style manuals have not always created a citation style yet.

Industry publications don’t have the long lead times of journals and books. They also don’t have a long shelf life. Copyeditors don’t have time to be too fussy—and the payoff won’t last long, anyway.

For the sake of my sanity, I’ve created two guidelines to follow in the industry work I edit:

That’s it. I can’t worry about dog-whistle errors on short deadlines.


In a perfect world, the author is responsible for creating a citation for every piece of information that needs it, giving the full details. They are the ones, after all, who know when they’re listing information that came from someone else and have actually looked at that source. They have access to it. And they’re the ones who will be plagiarizing if they don’t properly cite.

The copyeditor’s job is to edit the citations lightly and act as a safety net for the author. But even that is a good deal of work. No matter which system the citations are in, copyeditors need to:

Which order you do these steps in and whether you do them before or after editing the main text is up to you. The Copyeditor’s Handbook recommends doing citations first, especially for manuscripts with hundreds of citations. If you identify major problems or missing information that the author needs to supply up front, you can ask the author to work on that while you edit the main text.

But you might choose to do the references at the end, as many editors do, after you have some context for what you’re seeing. Or you might use citation editing to break up the main edit to help keep you alert. As long as you’re hitting your deadlines, do what works for you.


We rarely live in a perfect world. It’s more typical for copyeditors to have to do a lot of cleanup and a lot of research to find missing information. As a result, editing citations can take as long, if not longer, than editing the rest of the text. Many editors calculate that citations take 1.5 times longer to edit than the main text.

Before you begin a project, make sure you closely review citations and the reference/bibliography list, asking:

Any issues you can identify up front can help you estimate your expected editing time better and head off any major problems.


Citations are manual and often mind-numbing work. There are several ways to increase your efficiency and accuracy.

First, if you routinely edit shorter lists of citations (fewer than 100), you might offer to write the citations yourself as long as the author provides you enough publishing information. I’ve found it faster to write citations when given a link to the source material, such as an industry report published on a website, than to edit half-done citations in a variety of styles.

Whether you’re writing or editing the citations, always look up the style to ensure you’re following it correctly, especially if the publisher is exacting. You can try to memorize a style, but there are so many variations even within any one style that memorizing is challenging. There’s no medal for memorizing all the intricacies of a documentation style—open the style guide and copy the formats.

Use technology to your advantage. Use Microsoft Word’s tools, off-the-shelf or custom macros, and bibliography software and websites to help with formatting. 

You could also have someone else edit the citations while you do the main edit. Freelancers can subcontract citations out so that the work can be completed quicker. True, you won’t earn the whole fee, but you might find that you can take on more projects because of the time you save. New editors, editing students, and college or high school students are all good choices for editing citations; you’ll be helping them learn more about editing and citations as well.

If you’re an employee, do you have access to an intern? Is there an administrative assistant with time on their hands and a desire to learn editing? Talk to your manager about how to make the publishing process more efficient while giving others an opportunity to learn new skills. It could also give you some management experience, since you’ll be the best person to review their work and combine edits.

Citations are an important part of the copyediting process, but they are a lot of work, with many obstacles to correctness. Becoming familiar with the main documentation styles, knowing what’s expected of you, and planning your approach before you begin the job can help remove obstacles and make the work easier.

This article was originally posted to on 11/8/18.

Header photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash.

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