The Evolutionary Progress of the APA Publication Manual

After a nine-year revision process, the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association was finally released in 2019. As with prior iterations, APA 7th offers updates to the style guide with the intent to simplify, clarify, and reflect changes in how academics conduct and report research.

It can seem pedantic to students – and perhaps their instructors, too – for the APA to constantly publish revisions, making seemingly minuscule adjustments every few years. However, in order to understand just how dated the older guides can be, you only need to look back at the fourth edition of the APA manual. While much of the core style advice remains the same, APA 4th included once-helpful guidelines for referencing new methods of electronic data storage and publication (CD-ROM, FTP, Telnet, Gopher, WWW) and once-ubiquitous communication tools of the time (email, Usenet, and listservs).

Feeling nostalgic yet? Times change, and with them the APA manual.

Perhaps we should first mention one subtle and welcome change, as it counters the cynical criticism that updating the style guide is a mere sales ploy. At long last, the APA style manual website serves as the central hub for common questions of referencing and style.

This isn’t necessarily news for those who follow the APA on their blog and Twitter account, though – the APA editorial staff have collated and answered the most frequently-asked questions from students and professional researchers. This ongoing conversation was the origin of the bulk of the seventh-edition updates, driven largely by the shift toward digitization and internet publication.

Thus, while Purdue’s helpful OWL is still the top Google Search result for “APA Style,” with the APA’s own style website in lowly third place, expect that to change. Frankly, I’ll encourage the use of the latter in my own classes.

The APA web site now offers a wealth of useful, simple guidelines on its own home page for the style guide. These include the familiar citation and referencing guidelines, as well as specific rules of grammar, punctuation, and guidance for the use of language in the behavioral sciences.

Before getting into any specifics, though, perhaps the most significant change for teaching institutions is the apparent division of the APA manuscript format into “student” and “professional” versions.

This decision to fork APA Style seems to echo the changes made to the Chicago Manual of Style more than 50 years ago, with the familiar “Chicago/Turabian” edition simplified for students. This decision clearly indicates the increased use of the APA Manual in student writing, and rightfully so. The APA Manual addresses “Author-Date” citation in a method that now arguably surpasses that of the MLA style (or Harvard style) in its clarity, specificity, and overall usefulness.

The “Paper Format” pages, and the related Sample Papers, demonstrate one of the biggest shifts in the APA’s new approach. Gone from the “Student Sample” are the clunky, somewhat cumbersome running heads (which were downright hard to format manually, easy to gloss over with a downloadable template, and presented students with another hurdle that runs counter to what actually matters most: getting the right words on the page before the deadline).

Likewise, the cover page of the student format has been simplified for students. Understandably, there’s less focus on acknowledgements, appendices, and other matters that are irrelevant for the bulk of student writing. Aside from those changes, the format appears largely the same as the familiar APA 6th format.

However, there is one noticeable difference. The decision to shift away from serif typefaces (Times New Roman) toward sans-serif (Arial/Calibri) can be seen as part of the APA’s commitment to modern technology and the grading (or, for professional publications, editing) workflows of modern professionals. Although research into the visibility and readability of typefaces has not yet produced definitive best practice guidelines, many online publications have appeared in sans-serif fonts since the early days of the web (please refer to the story of Trebuchet MS, bundled in 1996). Thus, the APA is catching up with contemporary aesthetic and design decisions, even if the research remains unclear on readability.

Some other significant – perhaps startling – changes are being made to Referencing. Instructors beware: the most conscientious students may in fact be getting it right, even if their work seems to fly in the face of prior knowledge. With increased availability of information (thanks to the APA’s decision to publish this content on its home page) comes great accountability.

Embrace the change; long entries are cumbersome. The APA has long sought to shorten references while maintaining the most critical information to enable the location of the relevant text. One major revision from APA 5th to APA 6th was dropping the “Retrieved” date that continues to appear in several Harvard and “homebrew” university style guides. For student writing, even at the Thesis/Dissertation level, these links did little more than offer a “through the past, darkly” mapping of when an author conducted which part of the research, or confirm that a student accessed their references at the 11th hour (or creatively tweaked the reference to convince the reader otherwise). What the “Accessed on” date does most successfully, of course, is to lengthen the entry.

The guidance seems somewhat different for internet addresses and hyperlinks, though. APA 6th suggested dropping complete links and directing readers to the home pages of major newspapers and magazines, or linking to the shortened Digital Object Identifier (DOI) when available.

However, even this guideline was ambiguous, despite its good intentions of shortening reference entries. Adding the DOI to a reference meant manually entering “doi:” before the link and then dubiously editing the hyperlink to make it inactive, while for non-DOI links, it was seemingly random when the author was supposed to include the complete link or not. Authors can now just copy-paste from their address bars, whether the article itself or a functional DOI link.

Speaking of specific changes, the decision to truncate the ‘Whole Book’ reference entry may be the most startling.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin Books.

It’s easy to miss, but the APA 7th now requires only a publisher, and no longer the location. This may seem to allow student researchers to skip the academic rigor of preparing a complete reference, but every author has been faced with the same question: when seven (or more!) locations are listed on the inside cover, which one do we pick? Is there a need to list the city and state? What about the country? With a quick Google search, all of this information is irrelevant in a time when we’re downloading to tablets and distributing by PDF.

Also worth nothing is the specific inclusion of a Facebook post as a form of reference. Scholars may scoff, but as the academic world reflects on the past few years, there’s little doubt that posts and tweets represent the current horizons of discourse in the global village.

Could Facebook and Twitter go the way of Gopher and Usenet? Only time will tell. Perhaps the APA 8th will include guidance for TikTok videos! In any case, it seems safe to suggest that online posts have become very worthy of examination and further exploration.

Despite these changes to referencing, the language and style guidelines for the submission of APA manuscripts remain largely the same. The APA provides specific suggestions for increasing accuracy and reducing bias, and still suggests the use of “people-first” language when discussing groups or individuals with disabilities. One place in which this edition expands the discourse is the discussion of gender and gender identity.                                     

We could spend more time exploring other topics covered in the APA 7th, such as the new guidelines for the accessible use of color in figures (!) and issues of intersectionality in reporting (!!), but these discussions are probably best left to intellectually curious students and instructors.

The complete style guidance for the APA Manual, 7th ed., can be found at:

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