What type of source is this anyway?!

Tips for recognizing, adding, and citing different reference types

Image: Fred Heap on Unsplash

The sources you use to write your paper are a bit like road signs. Just as you need to know what the sign means in order to act according to the corresponding driving laws, you need to know what type of source you are working with to ensure that your citation rules are correctly applied – even when using a reference management program like Citavi.

How can you identify what type of source you have?

First, take a good look at your source. If you’re using Citavi or another reference management program, select the reference type that seems to fit the best. For example, if you’re in the Life Sciences, most of your sources will likely be journal articles.

After adding your source, add the information that jumps out at you. On the first or second page of the document, you should be able to find the author or editor, the title, and also a year or date. Add anything else that seems relevant, such as a URL if you are using an online source.

With that information added, you already have a good start. If you later realize that a different reference type is a better fit, it’s easy to switch later on.

Depending on the source type, some details are more important than others and Citavi will show you different fields for different reference types. Although different styles call for different information, most source types have at least some basic information in common, regardless of the citation style. For example:

  • For a journal article it’s important to know the name of the journal
  • Books almost always require the place of publication to be listed
  • For online sources you’ll usually need to list the URL you found the source under

Books and newspaper articles are usually easy to identify, but not all of your sources will always be so clear-cut. The questions below can help you determine the source type:

  1. What format does the source have?
    First, is your source digital or is it in print? Most digital documents are online sources that can be accessed again using the URL. Don’t assume that all digital items should be added as an Internet document, though! Digital sources can also be e-books, laws, reports, newspaper articles, etc. If your online document seems to be one of these items, use the reference type that fits best. For example, an e-book should be added using the Book reference type. This reference type gives you fields for the ISBN and the publisher, which the Internet document reference type doesn’t offer.

  2. Is your source an independent work or part of another work?
    If you have a book, page through it and check if other authors are listed, for example, if each chapter has a different set of authors. If it does, you’re likely dealing with an Edited book. You wouldn’t want to add your source just as a Book, since you then couldn’t add each individual contribution. What about if your book is part of a series? You can add the series title and editors in the corresponding Citavi fields.

  3. Are there any other identifying factors?
    For example, if you download a PDF document online and then see that it has a volume number and a DOI number, it’s very likely a Journal article.
    If the PDF does not have a volume number or DOI but it does have a document number, it could fall into the category Report or gray literature. "Gray literature" is a blanket term for works that are published privately by an individual person or organization and not by a publisher.
    If your PDF has an ISBN it is likely a book, even if it’s digital. You sometimes might also see that a published dissertation has an ISBN. In this case, make sure to cite it as a Book instead of using the Thesis reference type in Citavi.

If you’re still not sure exactly what you’re looking at, it’s okay to cheat:

Check a national library catalog, such as the Library of Congress catalog, or the database you found the source in, and see how the item was classified there. At the beginning of the record, you will usually see information about what type of source it is. Just keep in mind that some library catalogs might list edited books just as books, for example. This may not be an important distinction for the library, but it is important to you when you’re citing later on.

As you progress in your studies you’ll improve your skills in this area, so don’t worry if you find source identification difficult now. Remember that you can always ask your librarian for assistance if you’re unsure about a source type.

The relationship between source types and citation styles

The citation style you choose determines how information you enter in Citavi is output. Sometimes a style might not require information that you added for a particular source type. For example, you might have added the publisher for a book but then notice that it doesn’t appear in your bibliography.

Another example:

The APA citation style lists requirements for a "Journal article with DOI, advance online publication". You won't find a template for this exact source type in any reference management program. Instead, add the pre-print article as a journal article. Leave the volume field and page number fields empty but make sure that the DOI is present. When you select the citation style in Citavi, it will detect that the volume and page numbers are missing and will automatically add the supplementary information «advance online publication» to the bibliography entry for the source.

While entering information in Citavi, you can always double-check how your citation style will later format the source. Just click View > Show current reference in citation style. If important information is missing, check the citation style description or add information to the corresponding fields.

Don’t worry too much about field labels, either. Sometimes a field might not have the label you’re looking for, but entering information there will lead to the right output. For example, the Title supplement field can be used to add details about a source. If you’re citing a tweet, for example, you could add your source as an Internet document and then enter "Twitter post" in this field. If you want to define your own fields, you can also use Citavi’s custom fields, but you will then need to make changes to your citation style, so that their contents are output to your document.

What can you do if you can't find the reference type you need?

Citavi offers you 35 reference types. Each one has a short description that can also help you decide what source type you have.

But what can you do if you want to add an encyclopedia article, exhibition catalog, poster, review, or another reference type that your software program doesn’t offer a template for?

In Citavi you can’t define your own reference types, since this would require you to modify citation style files and would make it difficult to exchange references with users of other programs. You can, however, choose the reference type that seems to be closest to your source type. The most important thing is that you have all the necessary details that your citation style requires, and not what the name of the reference type template is in your program.

If you want some help, we have additional tips for adding special reference types in the Citavi manual.

Dealing with different source types can be a bit of a vicious cycle when you first start out. You don’t know what information designates a particular source type, so you don’t know how to add it to your software, and you also don’t know how it should appear in your bibliography. It can be frustrating, but take comfort in the fact that you’ll get better with each project you work on. You’ll quickly get used to what details are important for a particular source, how to enter them, and how they should appear in your citation style.

Were you ever confronted with a source you couldn’t identify?

Are there any reference types missing in Citavi that you find it hard to live without?

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Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 1/15/2019
Tags: Citation

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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