What is the difference between a citation and a reference?

Understanding the distinction between references and citations can be tricky, and it often seems that the two words can be used interchangeably. This can be made even more confusing by the use of "cite" as a verb. To make all of these words easier to understand, we have provided the definitions and uses of the all three.

Be sure to visit the APA Style Guide for more information and examples!


According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to cite something means "to quote by way of example, authority, or proof." (retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cite)

  • "The article cites several experts on the subject." 

As a student, you may be required to cite one or more sources in a paper or presentation. This simply means that you should find expert information sources to back up your writing, and cite (or quote) them in your paper. You will do this through the use of citations and references.


citation is broadly defined as an excerpt or quotation. In the context of the APA style, you may also hear the term in-text citations, because citations appear in the body of your writing. We use this term to describe the actual moment when you cite a source in a paper.

Citations are typically very simple: they usually consist of an author's name and a publication year, and sometimes a page number.

  • "In one research study (Rogers, 2014), employees were more likely..."


reference is broadly defined as a "something that refers," or "something...that refers a reader or consulter to another source of information." (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reference)

References are more extensive than citations. They are designed to provide the maximum amount of information about a source so that your readers can get a clear idea of what type of source you are citing (such as a book, article, or website, for example) as well as where they can find it. References appear at the end of your paper, in a reference list, and they contain all the publication information that you never thought you needed. Below you will see an example of a reference for a book:

  • Gore, A. (2006). An Inconvenient Truth: The planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it. New York: Rodale Press.



  • Last Updated Jan 26, 2018
  • Views 65
  • Answered By Thobela Buyana

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