Online Sources: Definition & Citations

Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Mary Firestone

Mary Firestone has a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Firestone has experience as an instructor for English, English Composition, Advanced Composition, Contemporary World Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Creative Writing. She has taught at a variety of schools such as Ottawa University Online, Rasmussen College, Excelsior College, and Southern New Hampshire University.

Expert Contributor
Amy Fredrickson

Amy has taught and tutored college-level English; she has a master's degree from Colorado State University in rhetoric and composition.

Online sources typically are copyrighted materials found on social media, web-based newspapers, webpages, forums, blogs. Explore different styles of citing online sources and learn how to define and evaluate the credibility of online sources. Updated: 08/17/2021

What Are Online Sources?

An online source is material you find online. It can be an online newspaper, magazine or television website such as NBC or CNN. Peer-reviewed journals, webpages, forums and blogs are also online sources. Some other names for online sources are electronic sources, web sources and Internet sources. Since so many sources are available online, it's important to know which ones are reliable and how to cite them.

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  • 0:03 What Are Online Sources?
  • 0:28 Citing Online Sources
  • 2:43 Evaluating Online Sources
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Citing Online Sources

Generally speaking, there are two proper and common ways to cite sources. You may opt to follow the citation format provided by either the American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA). Always provide an in-text citation. Online sources are cited just like books and other print sources, with some minor differences.

APA

If you're using the APA style, use the author and year as you would for a print source. An in-text citation in APA would look something like this:

Johnson (2014) believes that students will always be sleep deprived.

Online sources frequently lack the author's name and date. When this happens, use the article title in-text in place of the author's name, and 'n.d.' for no date. For example: (Health Matters, n.d.) If you're quoting directly from the article, use the paragraph number where the quote appears if no page number is available. (Health Matters, par. 6)

References page:

Online articles cited in-text should also appear on the References page. Use the same format as print sources, but you must add the main organization's name (the one sponsoring the website) and the full URL.

For online peer-reviewed journal articles and books, include the volume number and pages and use the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) instead of the URL if the DOI available. DOI links are more stable than URLs, which change frequently. An example would look something like this:

  • Johnson, T. (2014). Sleep deprivation and learning. Sleep Science Journal. 29, 500-505. DOI: 10.1006/ssj.2014

For online sources without DOIs, use the full URL instead.

MLA

If you're using MLA style, use the author and page number form as you would for a print source. An in-text citation in MLA would look something like this:

Hansen believes there will be many changes made to the original document (24).

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Additional Activities

Citing and Evaluating Online Sources

In-Text Citations

You are writing an essay about island ecosystems. You decide to include the following online source in your paper:

  • Author: Sally Henderson
  • Article Title: Island Ecosystems
  • Website Title: Learning Source
  • Publication Date: May 23, 2015

Below are two sentences from this source. For both sentences, include both an MLA and an APA in-citation. This online source has no page numbers, but both sentences are from the third paragraph of the article. However, the paragraph numbers are not numbered in the original article.

  • Henderson argues that island ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to degradation.
  • ''Island ecosystems tend to have a wide array of species.''

Answer Key:

  • APA Citation: Henderson (2015) argues that island ecosystems are vulnerable.
  • MLA Citation: Henderson argues that island ecosystems are vulnerable.
  • APA Citation: ''Island ecosystems tend to have a wide variety of species'' (Henderson, 2015, par. 3).
  • MLA Citation: ''Island ecosystems tend to have a wide variety of species'' (Henderson).

Assessing a Source's Credibility

Below are three scenarios. Based on the information provided, explain whether the online source is credible.

  1. Tom finds an online source about the origins of Labor Day that has no author. Tom is surprised that the article includes many grammar errors and is not clearly written. The website also includes many advertisements that pop up.
  2. Gwen finds an online source about the science of nuclear fusion. The source was written by an astrophysicist employed by NASA. The article is published on NASA's website and was published in 2018.
  3. Lucy finds an online source from the White House website about current foreign policy. She notices that the source seems to have a lot of opinion-based statements and words that indicate bias.

Answer Key:

  1. The source is not credible because the author is anonymous. Also, the source has a lot of errors, which suggests that the article was not written or researched carefully. Finally, the extensive advertisements and pop-ups indicate that the website serves to gain financially from users visiting the site.
  2. The source is credible because the author is an expert in his or her field, the place of publication (the NASA website) is credible, and the article was recently published.
  3. The source may be credible as it is published on a government website. However, because the source indicates bias, readers should be scrupulous when reading the information.

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