Following the rules of academic and professional writing is important. And citing sources is usually a critical part of these guidelines. It gives credit to the original authors of the ideas and information you use and helps in avoiding plagiarism. Citations allow readers to trace back the sources you’ve referenced, fostering a network of reliable knowledge. In this digital age, PDFs have become a prevalent format for scholarly articles, research papers, and reports. Understanding how to cite these documents correctly is crucial for maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of your work.

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Citing a PDF in Widely-Used Styles

A PDF (Portable Document Format) is a file format developed by Adobe Systems for representing documents in a manner independent of the application software, hardware, and operating systems. PDFs are widely used in academic settings for their ability to maintain the same formatting regardless of the device or software used to view them. This makes them ideal for distributing and sharing academic papers, articles, and research documents.

APA Style

Author, A. A. (Year). Title of document. Publisher. [Format description]. URL or DOI

A screenshot of a citation in APA Style

❗Attention: Ensure to include ‘[PDF document]’ if the PDF format is not obvious from the URL or DOI. Do not forget the year of publication.

MLA Style

Author’s Last name, First name. “Title of Document.” Title of Container, Publisher, Publication date, Location (pages, paragraphs URL or DOI).

A screenshot of a citation in MLA Style

❗Attention: The title of the document should be in quotation marks. The title of the container (if available) should be italicized.

Chicago/Turabian Style

 Last name, First name. Year. “Title of Document.” Publisher. URL or DOI.

A screenshot of a citation in Chicago/Turabian Style

Harvard Style

Author(s) Last name, First Initial(s). (Year) ‘Title of document’, Publisher, Format. Available at: URL or DOI

How to Cite a PDF

❗Attention: The title of the document should be in single quotes.

IEEE Style

[Number] Author’s Initials. Author’s Surname, “Title of document,” Publisher, Year, [Online]. Available: URL or DOI.

How to Cite a PDF

❗Attention: Ensure the reference number matches the in-text citation number. Use square brackets for the reference number.

Common Mistakes and Tips

Even the most observant students can become negligent, overlook details, and make unintentional errors in some details. And there are so many of these details regardless of the citation style you’re working with. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to review your work for any common errors or inaccuracies.

Not Including Format DescriptionEspecially in APA style, it’s essential to indicate if the source is a PDF.
Incorrect Author InformationAlways double-check the author’s name and initials.
Omitting the DateThe date of publication is crucial in all citation styles.
Incorrect Title FormattingPay attention to whether the title needs to be in italics, quotation marks, or underlined.
Forgetting URL or DOIAlways include a link to the source, if available.
Overlooking Page NumbersIn MLA and Chicago styles, if you are referencing a specific part of the document, include page numbers.

To avoid there mistakes, try our Free Citation Generator

Diversity in Citation Styles

As you may see, there are plenty of citation styles, each developed to meet the specific needs of various academic disciplines. The diversity in citation styles is not arbitrary; it reflects the different ways disciplines emphasize aspects of a source. For instance, while some focus on the publication date, others prioritize the author’s background. This variation ensures that the most relevant information for a field is most prominently displayed. Adapting to the appropriate style is not just about following rules but communicating in your field’s language.

While there are countless citation styles in academic writing, a handful stand out owing to their extensive use and approval across diverse fields. These well-known citation styles have been developed and refined throughout time to accommodate the unique demands of many areas, assuring clarity and uniformity in academic writing. Their extensive use is due to their capacity to organize efficiently and present information in a way that is both accessible and relevant to their respective professions. These styles aid in standardizing material presentation and creating global understanding among researchers and scholars. Let’s look at some of the most common and extensively utilized citation styles. 

The following table showcases the distinct features of each citation style, including the disciplines they are most commonly used in, their primary focus in citation, the format of in-text citations, and any unique characteristics that set each style apart. This comparative view can help in understanding the nuances and applications of each style in different academic contexts.

> Citation Style> Disciplines Used In> Focus> In-text Citation Format> Unique Features
(American Psychological Association)
Psychology, Education, Social SciencesAuthor-date citationAuthor’s last name, year of publicationEmphasizes date of publication; commonly used for scientific papers
(Modern Language Association)
HumanitiesAuthor-page citationAuthor’s last name, page numberPrioritizes page number; widely used for literature and humanities
Chicago/TurabianHistory, Some HumanitiesAuthor-date or notes-bibliographyAuthor-date: Author’s last name, year; Notes-bibliography: Superscript numberOffers two citation systems; notes-bibliography system is more detailed
HarvardVarious DisciplinesAuthor-date citationAuthor’s last name, year of publicationSimilar to APA but has subtle differences in formatting
(Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)
Engineering, Computer ScienceNumber systemBracketed numberUses a sequential number system in square brackets; specific to technical fields


Knowing how to cite PDF documents across different citation styles is a valuable skill in academic and professional writing. As we’ve seen, each style—APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard, and IEEE—has its unique format and nuances, catering to the specific needs of various academic disciplines. Understanding these differences is necessary for maintaining the integrity and clarity of your work. Whether including the format description in APA or making the correct use of quotation marks and italics in MLA, each element plays a critical role in the citation process.


Why are there so many citation styles?

The existence of various citation styles illustrates the diverse needs and priorities of different academic disciplines. Each style is developed to highlight the aspects of a source most relevant to a particular field. For example, some disciplines prioritize the publication date, while others focus on the author’s background or the work’s title. This diversity ensures that each field can communicate and present information in a manner that is most effective and relevant for its specific academic and research needs. Adapting to a particular citation style is not just about adhering to rules but about engaging effectively in the scholarly conversation of that field.

What is the importance of diversity in citation styles?

The diversity in citation styles reflects the different emphases of various academic disciplines, such as focusing on publication date or author’s background. This variation ensures that the most relevant information for a field is highlighted, aiding in standardizing material presentation and creating global understanding among researchers.

What are the unique features of different citation styles?

Each citation style has unique features. For example, APA emphasizes the date of publication and is commonly used for scientific papers, MLA prioritizes page numbers and is widely used for literature, Chicago/Turabian offers two systems and is detailed, Harvard is similar to APA with subtle differences, and IEEE uses a number system specific to technical fields.

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