MLA changed the rules for source citation: What it means for educators and students

A hand with a finger pointing to the page in an open book

MLA (Modern Language Association) is publishing new guidelines April 2016 that radically depart from their previous approach to citing sources. Instead of allowing the kind of source (a newspaper article with one author or a journal article with multiple authors) to determine the citation’s final form or product, MLA now encourages writers to focus on the process of crafting the citation, beginning with the same questions for any source.

This shift in approach not only responds to what the foreword of MLA’s 8th edition calls “the increasing mobility of texts,” but it also aligns with the current way of thinking about rhetoric and the teaching of writing.

Instead of encouraging students to conform to a set of rules (that to them might seem rather arbitrary) and difficult to follow (how fair is it to expect the average freshman to quickly and easily discern an article from the NYTimes online from one that they find in a database or from an article in Time Magazine, for that matter?), now we can present students with an opportunity to engage in inquiry and critical thinking.

This metacognitive approach to thinking about and crafting citations will allow students to develop the habits of mind or “dispositions” necessary for transfer of skills and strategies integral to success in other coursework and in their careers. (If you want to read more about the power of transfer, check out this short presentation by Charles Paine, almost anything published by Chris Anson, or Jesse Moore’s comprehensive survey of the topic in the Fall 2012 issue of Composition Forum).

Another exciting result of this major sea change is that we are no longer compelled to police students’ abilities to conform to rigid guidelines. Instead, one of the new principles is the notion that more than one correct way to cite a source exists. The focus is on the audience: from the citation, will they be able to locate the source easily? If so, then, the writer has done her job well.

Now for those among us who like having a set of solid guidelines, don’t worry. It’s not a free-for-all. It’s just that student writers will begin with what they know and work out from there, asking appropriate questions about the source that will reveal integral information about the source–and, hopefully, raise integral questions about credibility.

I’m also hopeful that this approach will give students an opportunity to practice transferable strategies that will serve them in courses that don’t use MLA and, of course, in their personal lives and throughout their careers.

Because we feel that these updates serve students and faculty, we are delighted–and committed–to update our titles for fall. Many will be completely reprinted, while others will come bundled with free access to Pearson Writer, which includes all the information your students will need.

It’s not too early to contact your rep to make sure that you are set up with these new updates for fall. We’re ready.


About the Author

Allison Arnold Good taught freshman composition at the University of New Orleans for 15 years before joining Pearson as a product marketing manager. She misses being in front of the classroom, but hasn’t yet missed grading papers. Follow her on Twitter.